Confessions of a Political Animal

November 25, 2008

European Left Watch: Austria – as you were

set to be Austria's social democratic Chancellor

Walter Faymann: set to be Austria's Social Democrat Chancellor

It has taken the best part of two months since Austria’s inconclusive Nationalrat elections, but the country at last seems on the verge of having a new government. ‘New’ is only a formally acurate description in this instance, however, as the party make-up of the coalition will be precisely the same as that which governed Austria (with very limited success) for the previous 18 months.

The two months since the elections at the end of September have been pretty tumultuous in Austrain politics. The election was called early following the breakdown of the grand coalition government of the centre-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ) and the centre-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP), with polls showing that very few Austrians wanted the continuation of this form of government, which had proved highly ineffective. Prior to the elections, the unpopular sitting SPÖ Chancellor announced he would not be remaining as party leader and Chancellor candidate, being replaced by Walter Faymann in both roles.

The elections themselves saw both major parties losing electoral support (results table in the last post) and the two populist, anti-immigration hard-right parties (the FPÖ and the BZÖ) gaining significantly, to a combined total of nearly 30% of the vote. This effectively left two options for government formation: a renewal of the grand coalition, or the ÖVP joining with both of the hard-right parties. Given that the ÖVP had been in government with the FPÖ before, prior to the split which created the BZÖ, this could have been possible had it not been for the bad blood between the two smaller parties. The SPÖ from the outset rightly refused any talk of itself entering coalition with either of the hard-right parties.

At the start of October, the ÖVP replaced its own leader Wilhelm Molterer (who had been the driving force behind the collapse of the original grand coalition) with the more liberal, and grand coalition friendly Josef Proell, paving the way for formal coalition talks with the SPÖ. Austrian was rocked later in the month by the death in a car crash of the FPÖ’s unaccountably popular leader Jörg Haider in a car crash. There were inevitably concerns as to how public reaction to this would affect coalition formation talks, but it seems to have little effect – possibly in part due to the revelations that Haider was drunk and speeding at the time of the accident and the turmoil within the FPÖ following the new leader’s admissionthat he had been Haider’s lover. It has also been suggested that these ructions helped to convince those sections of the ÖVP that were keen to try to forge a coalition with the hard-right that this wasn’t in any way practical.

Yesterday, the two major parties finally agreed the termsof a new grand coalition led, in theory at least, by the slightly larger SPÖ. Whilst the SPÖ’s Feymann will be the new chancellor, the ÖVP has secured many of the key portfolios, with Proell serving as Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister. Foreign Affairs and Justice also being handed to the centre-right.

So, the first objective of keeping the hard-right out of government in Austria has been achieved, and that in itself should be grounds for happiness on the left, even if the outcome of the coalition government doesn’t exactly bode well for progressive policies. The next concern is of course whether this coalition will last – a further round of early elections after a short and ineffective grand coalition could lead to results whereby the inclusion of at least one far-right party in government is unavoidable. A useful Reuters article here suggests some reasons for optimism, including the removal of many of the previous government’s personalities, and hence their feuds. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the economic crisis has moved the political centre of gravity in Austria (as elsewhere), with the centre-right having to accept many of the SPÖ’s Darling-esque policies: unfunded tax cuts and extra borrowing to increase spending. With Austria having being occasionally mentioned in the same breath as Iceland over recent months, an effective economic package seems urgent.

It will be fascinating to see how the new government pans out over the next twelve months or so, for what will be testing times for its country (the national soul-searching over the Fritzl case seems to be adding to the general economy-inspired malaise). But, for now, we can simply note that another peg in our European Left-Watch map stays red – and that the fascists have, for now, been kept out of power.

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