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The Governmental Crisis in Austria and the Austrian Party System

Vít Hloušek


The present article comments on the contemporary development of the Austrian party stage, deals with the governmental crisis of the Schüssels cabinet and the situation before the early elections to the National Council in November 2002. Analyzing the basic programme outputs and potential coalition strategies of the relevant Austrian parties, it considers all the possible configurations after the elections. The article also briefly analyses the consequences of various alternatives of post-electoral coalition for alteration of the Austrian party system that undergoes the long-term process of transformation.


Austrian Party System, Moderate Pluralism, Coalitions, Parties, Elections

The results of the 1999 National Council elections have been interpreted in various ways, often with strong emotions; creation of the coalition government of Wolfgang Schüssel, the ÖVP and even the FPÖ participated in, has evolved a similar reaction in Austria and particularly in European countries. Few people were willing to admit that the positive impacts of this fact on the Austrian party system mechanism do exist. At least from the beginning of the 1990s the Austrian party system finds itself in the phase not so acute and critical but univocally characterised by reconstruction of traditional patterns of system mechanism. In this sense the Schüssel’s coalition represented the substantial innovation. The governmental crisis which culminates on 24th November 2002 in the early elections shows the fragility of such a linkage. The aim of this commentary is to map the events leading to the Schüssel’s government crisis and to try to present the theoretical possibilities of further development of the Austrian party system in the context of a long-term transformation process.

The crisis and the disintegration of Schüssel’s coalition

The coalition government of the FPÖ and the ÖVP was nominated by the president Klestil on 4th February 2000; the ministerial posts of the FPÖ were headed by Susanne Riess-Passer who replaced due to her political acceptability Jörg Haider as a party leader on 1st May 2000. Haider did not obtain any official position among party leaders and remained the Carinthian governor „only”. Despite this fact he maintained strong personal influence inside the party. The nomination of the new government was accompanied by the wave of emotive demonstrations in Vienna and protests from abroad (including the sanctions of the rest of the EU member countries).
Haider’s influence has been already felt in the events of October 2000, when the FPÖ lost the land elections in Styria, and Haider, for the first time, threatened with the possibility of early federal parliamentary elections, bacause the ÖVP had supposedly attacked mainly its coalition partner in its pre-electoral strategies.[1]
The tension in the coalition continued due to relatively rapid changes in ministerial posts held by the FPÖ. The certain non-conceptual politics reflected in the adverse result of the March 2001 communal elections in Vienna. Although the FPÖ obtained 20,16 %, this result represented the loss of 7, 78 % of votes comparing to the previous elections. The ÖVP, strictly speaking, stagnated (12,45%/+1,13) while the opposing formations improved their positions – the SPÖ gained 46,91% of votes (+7,66) and the Greens 12,45% (+4,51).
Even the vice-chancellor Riess-Passer threatened in October 2001 with the possibility of holding new early parliamentary elections, because the ÖVP supposedly performed the dual politics: they formed the coalition government with the FPÖ on the one hand and sharply competed with them on the land and communal level on the other hand.[2] In addition, the situation was sharpened at the turn of 2001 and 2002 by the totally different view on solving the international dispute with the Czech Republic concerning the nuclear plant Temelín. After Schüssel’s successful negotiations with Czech counterparts about the acceptable compromise solution and after unsuccessful referendum, which was meant to be the main political weapon of the FPÖ in this case, the party lost a certain amount of its popularity again. (Cf. Dančák – Hloušek 2002: 10 – 12; Plasser – Ulram 2002; Ulram 2001: 18-20, 23) Furthermore, the government was forced to face the pressure of trade unions which did not agree with (in relation to Austrian situation) the intensive economic reform and particularly with the proposal of generous modification of the public finance architecture.
This repeatedly opened question drove a wedge between Haider and the official party leaders (Susanne Riess-Passer, the chairman of the MP’s fraction Peter Westenthaler) who accepted the idea of full restoration of cooperation in the governmental coalition. The tensions inside the FPÖ during the spring 2002 increased even due to the improper conduct of Haider himself.[3] Susanne Riess-Passer was confirmed to be a leader in June 2000 during the party congress and at the same time the FPÖ expressed its evident support of the tax reform which should have been introduced since 2003 and indicated it one of the main points of the party efforts in the governmental coalition.
The August floods which deeply affected Austria led to the reassessment of governmental priorities. Apart from the modified plan of the Eurofighter supersonic’s purchase Schüssel’s cabinet decided to postpone the tax reform by a month. This solution was fully supported by Riess-Passer and even the finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser (The Freedom Party). Jörg Haider communicated the opinion of a substantial party’s section and denied the delay of the planned reform flatly. After Riess-Passer failed to gain the sufficient support for the FPÖ ministers’ decision she announced, in the evening of the 8th September 2002, together with the finance minister Grasser and the chairman of the FPÖ MP’s fraction Westenthaler, their resignations. After a short hesitation and talks with chancellor Schüssel they resolved to hold the early parliamentary elections in November 2002.[4]

The position of the Austrian relevant parties in the 2002 parliamentary elections context

The Austrian party system has been undergoing a specific process of reconstruction in case of the relevance of particular participants, and thus the prevailing models of interactions between the parties since the mid 1980s. (Cf. Hloušek 2001; Hloušek 2002; Müller 2000; Plasser-Ulram-Grausgruber 1992). The great internal dynamics has been proved by the FPÖ and the Greens to a smaller degree or the LIF temporarily (between 1995 – 1999). On the other side the SPÖ and the ÖVP have been standing on the defensive during the whole period.
Both of the traditional big parties[5] had to cope with the erosion of the traditional camp voters and they have been forced to face the appeals for redefinition of some of ideological and programmatic basis. (Cf. Hloušek 2001: 356-359; Kitschelt 1994; generally Puhle 2002). Both of the parties, however, have a better position compared to the mid 1990s. The reform the economic policy of the FPÖ connected with implementation of tax reform limiting the generous Austrian welfare state took the workers back to the electoral basis of Social Democrats. The evaluation of the ÖVP governmental performance is also propitious, and mainly the chairman Schüssel is seen as a trustworthy and competent politician and compared to the SPÖ chairman Gusenbauer seems to be in many aspects a charismatic person. These parties thus remain the main axis of the Austrian party system in the 2002 elections and these parties will decide (not in the mutual concordance) about the form of governmental coalition.
The FPÖ represents the party the internal problems of which caused the present governmental crisis in Austria and which can be affected by the elections most. If it does not manage to maintain the electoral result, it can become a component of the governmental coalition, but a very small one. What is more, the party leaders are unstable. After Riess-Passer and her colleagues had resigned, it was decided to arrange a special party congress. The defence minister in the Schüssel’s cabinet Herbert Scheibner became an interim party leader; however, he will not stand as a candidate for the post at the congress in October. The other departures followed the resignation of Riess-Passer (minister for infrastructure Mathias Reichhold, FPÖ chairman in Vorarlberg Hubert Gorbach left the post of party vice-chairman on the federal level, general secretary Karl Schweitzer announced he would place his post at the disposal etc.) and the latent discrepancies in the party ignited at full blast. Jörg Haider announced he was not the „proper” candidate for the chairman post, but denied to tell who would be supported by him. (Die Presse online, 10/09/2002) He later declared for Herbert Haupt. Mathias Reichhold announced on 18th September 2002 that he would stand as a candidate for post of the chairman in order to unify FPÖ again if he obtains strong party support. He called on the party not to put the problems on media and to solve them on the relevant party level. (Die Presse online, 19/09/2002)
The apparent symptoms of destabilization were obvious on the land level as well. Lots of individuals and somewhere the whole local organisation left the FPÖ. A part of the members claimed the resignation of the chairman Hans Achatz in Upper Austria who initiate the interparty signature campaign against Riess-Passer and other leaders. FPÖ in Styria was separated while dealing with this question and similar situation occurred in the majority of land organisations. In the Upper Austria and Salzburg the departures appeared even in the initial days, however it was not of a massive affair. ( Die Presse online, 11/09/2002)
The special congress elected Mathias Reichhold, who obtained emphatic majority of 92,2% of votes, the party chairman.[6] Originally Jörg Haider announced the intention to stand as a candidate but he finally did not submit the candidature. (Der Standard online, 21/09/2002). The line that Reichhold chose inside the party is intensive. He tried rhetorically to unite the two wings and managed to force Jörg Haider to leave the Carinthian ballot for the upcoming elections (Die Presse online, 30/09/2002). Reichhold assessed the party prospects in the electoral results and following possibilities with scepticism and declared that the result lower than 12 % of votes means the FPÖ will not try to participate in the government coalition. The 11 – 12 percent limit is at the same time the result of the pre-electoral surveys from September (Die Presse online, 27/09/2002).
The tendency of the electoral results during the last aprox. 15 years to grow - which many of the Austrian political scientists interpret as a main factor of the Austrian party system alteration transiting from quasi-bipartism to moderate pluralism with the three main participants (ÖVP, SPÖ, FPÖ) - will be interrupted; it is questionable if the FPÖ will follow the successes which the party maintained during Haider’s leadership in the nearest future. The transfer to opposition would probably mean revitalisation of its populist political style; the question is whether such an appeal would be attractive for voters again.
The definite consolidation is supposed after the November elections in case of the Austrian Greens. This party can - under certain conditions - gain the support oscillating around the results of the FPÖ and – if the SPÖ reached a good electoral result - the “red-green” coalition model would be put into effect in Austria as well. Despite this fact it is possible to conclude that there are relatively strong limits for the further expansion of the Greens on the Austrian electoral market. Although the party overcame the initial radical phase and gradually completed its programme basis in other spheres than in the environmental protection and addresses particularly young voters, this party puts - due to its accent on the post-material issues - the traditional voters of the blue-collar provenance off and does not suit the conservative electorate of the Austrian middle and higher social stratum due to its proclaimed leftism and secularism.

The variants of further development

The most probable variant of the electoral result represents the victory of the SPÖ while the ÖVP will place itself behind by a certain margin. The FPÖ will not obviously succeed in defending its electoral result from the second half of the last decade, and the question how the Greens will be doing also exists. The restoration of the “black-blue” coalition is very unlikely because of the outlined electoral results. The “red-green” variant or the restored great coalition of the SPÖ and the ÖVP seems to be more probable.
The Greens – and – SPÖ coalition variant would mean a new element in the mechanism of the coalition formation in the Austrian party system again and would be an absolute step that would – under certain conditions - strengthen[7] the trend of the Austrian party system towards the moderate pluralism with the four relevant formations and alternating coalition patterns: the SPÖ- the Greens and the ÖVP-FPÖ. The Austrian public opinion does not incline to further experiments very much. According to Wolfgang Bachmayer, the head of the Institute for Opinion Polls OGM, the Austrians are not very enthusiastic about the possibility of a new combination of the SPÖ-the Greens which has not been experienced yet, and apparently the major part of population would prefer the return to the stability of the great coalition (Die Presse online, 10/09/2002). The second limiting factor is a not very predictable behaviour of the FPÖ in opposition and the uncertainty concerning the perspective of the cooperation between the right-wing FPÖ and the centrist ÖVP resulting from this fact.
The Great coalition would mean the comeback to the traditional model of the Austrian Second Republic. Although both potential coalition partners – ÖVP and SPÖ – went through numerous internal changes, the danger of return to the model of Proporz democracy would evolve with all the vice. It is obvious that the scope for new populistic-reformal alternatives would be opened not only for the FPÖ but – under certain conditions – for the Greens or parties like extra-parliamentary Liberal Forum (LIF) as well.

Conclusive Remarks

Both variants do not mean the definitive consolidation and stabilisation of patterns of interactions and mechanisms of the Austrian party competition. The Great coalition would mean a certain ballast for this party system in the sense that the situation from the second half of the 1980s and the early 1990s characterised by the growth of politics disgust (Politikverdrossenheit), by the drop in the support for both coalition parties and increase of importance of populist moments in the Austrian party and electoral competition might repeat. The „red-green” coalition variant would bring the innovative element long-term consequences of which are too hard to predict. If the Austrian system undergoes long-lasting gradual transformation, the upcoming elections in November 2002 do not mean the end of the transformation but rather the entrance to its next phase.

Poznámky / Notes

1. ÖVP gained 47,29% of votes and improved its position by 11 percentage points gain, The Greens obtained 5,61% (+1,3) but the FPÖ (12,41/-4,74) and SPÖ (32,32/-3,61) deteriorated. The results of the 2000 land elections in Burgenland has not ended up optimally while loosing 1,92 % of votes (gained 12,63%). Similarly even the ÖVP deteriorated (35,33/-0,73) while the SPÖ’s (46,55/+2,1) and the Greens’s (5,94/+3,0) position improved. (Der Standard online, 09/09/2000)
2. The public opinion reflected this tactics to a large degree. The government as a whole had - according to opinions of Austrians - much larger competences in the budget policy compared to the last period of Vranitzki’s government (the survey of August 1995). According to the survey of November 2000 14% of Austrians considered the fact government would solve the budget problems out, 42% considered this probable, 24% improbable and 13% thought the government would fail. The adequate numbers form August 1995 (the great coalition government) were, on the other hand, 3% , 20%, 37% and 39%. However the ÖVP scored better. The November 2000 survey showed that 42% of respondents believed the ÖVP had the ability to solve the Austrian problems out efficiently while the FPÖ was entrusted by only 26% of respondents; thus falling down behind the SPÖ (32%). The Greens had 23%. (INTERAL 2000: 3 and 5; cf. INTEGRAL 2001: 3)
3. Haider visited Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on 12/02/2002 while Ries-Passer stayed in the USA.
4. The opposing formations claimed the new elections from the very beginning of the situation. The SPÖ chairman Alfred Gusenbauer denoted even on the next day the „black-blue experiment” to be crashed and declared for holding new elections and offered the main electoral topic of the Social democrats – a new concept of tax reform meaning the benefit for both the entrepreneurial investments and employees with low or medium income. He simultaneously presented the cancellation of Eurofighter purchase as a second main point of the programme. Dealing with the potential coalition combinations Gusenbauer expressed the conviction that only the coalition with the FPÖ is excluded.
The chairman of the Greens Alexander Van der Bellen supported the coalition of the Greens and SPÖ while – in his opinion - the ÖVP has to carry consequences of the coalition with the FPÖ and has to move to opposition in the following electoral period. From the long-lasting point of view Van der Bellen did not disqualify the possibility of the ÖVP- the Greens coalition. According to Van der Bellen it is the most important task for the government to manage the EU east enlargement in the future, and Austria has to send out signals of a greater openness towards the candidate countries. As well as Gusenbauer, even Van der Bellen denied the fighters purchase. According to the chairman of the Greens the attention should be aimed at the problems of climate protection even because of this year’s floods. (Der Standard online, 09/09/2002)
5. Dealing with the dispute over the suspense of the tax reform Haider was finally supported by the Minister of Justice Dieter Böhmdorfer and the Minister of Social Security Herbert Haupt.
6. Herbert Haupt, Magda Bleckmann (the MP of Landsrat in Styria), Thomas Prinzhorn (the president of National Council for FPÖ) and Maxmilian Walch, the deputy of employees from the Upper Austria, were elected vice-chairmen. Karl Schweitzer remained the general secretary. Reichhold denoted the main points in their electoral campaign: the quick enforcement of tax reform; he also confirmed the Austrian rejecting attitude towards the Czech Republic’s admission to EU in case that Temelín will remain in operation and Beneš decrees in effect. (Cf.
7. The text has been completed at the beginning of October 2002.

Literatura / Bibliography

All the on-line sources are validated by the 30th September 2002

DANČÁK, BŘETISLAV; HLOUŠEK, VÍT (2002): Czesko-austriackie stosunki w cieniu Temelína. Przegłąd Środkowoeuropejski, Vol. 9, N. 1, pp. 9-13.
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INTEGRAL (2001): Vertrauen in die Regierung Juli 2001. Wien: Integral market Research (
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KITSCHELT, HERBERT (1994): Austrian and Swedish Social Democrats in Crisis. Party Strategy and Organization in Corporatist Regimes. Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 27, N. 1, pp. 3-40 (e-version)
MÜLLER, WOLFGANG C. (2000): Elections and the Dynamics of the Austrian Party System since 1986. Wien: Zentrum für angewandte Politikforschung (e-version:
Österreichische Volkspartei (
PLASSER, FRITZ; ULRAM, PETER A. (2002): Analyse des Volksbegehrens “Veto gegen Temelin”: Wer hat unterschrieben? Wien: FESSEL-GfK Institut (online version:
PLASSER, FRITZ; ULRAM, PETER A.; GRAUSGRUBER, ALFRED (1992): The Decline of ´Lager Mentality´ and the New Model of Electoral Competition in Austria. In: Luther, Kurt Richard; Müller, Wolfgang C. (eds.): Politics in Austria: still a case of consociationalism? London – Portland: Frank Cass & Co, pp. 16-44.
PUHLE, HANS-JÜRGEN (2002): Still the Age of Catch-allism? Volksparteien and Parteienstaat in Crisis and Re-equilibration. In: Gunther, Richard; Montero, José Ramón; Linz, Juan J. (eds.): Political Parties. Old Concepts and New Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 58-83.
Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (
ULRAM, PETER A. (2001): Image and Political Culture: Austria and its Neighbours. Central European Political Science Review, Vol. 2, N. 6, pp. 14-33.

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