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Vol 2, No 20
22 May 2000
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Austricised!One Hundred Days of Solitude
Magali Perrault

On 12 May 2000, Austria's Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and vice-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer held a joint press conference to mark the first hundred days of the coalition government between their two parties, the People's Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Schüssel's decision to forfeit the 13-year old alliance of the ÖVP with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and enter a partnership with the highly controversial FPÖ led by Jörg Haider was welcomed by a storm of protests in the international community and in Austria itself.

The fourteen EU partners of Austria immediately imposed bilateral political sanctions on the country, and Austrian civil society made itself heard (for instance, during the mass demonstration in Vienna on 15 February that united an estimated 200,000 people against the government).

Instead of the traditional "honeymoon" in public opinion, the government, as Schüssel recently pointed out, got "one hundred days of distrust" - at home and abroad. Yet, the unusual level of media attention devoted to Austria internationally (some suggested that, at least now, nobody would ever confuse Austria and Australia again...) might have obscured signs that the government is actually engaged in major reforms to attempt to fulfil its pledge to "govern Austria in a new way" (Österreich neu regieren).

Foreign policy: continuity after all?

It is on the foreign policy and diplomatic fronts that the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition has arguably run into the biggest difficulties following the imposition of the sanctions. Yet, there is mounting evidence that the times of isolation might be over soon and the consensus among Austria's fourteen partner states looks increasingly fragile. The meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Azores, two weeks ago, was hailed by Austria's foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner as the beginning of a process that could lead to the end of the sanctions and a split seems to be emerging between the countries (led by Belgium and France) that insist on the maintenance of sanctions and Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain who more or less openly argue that the European Union should now rethink its strategy against the country.

Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP) has gained a reputation as an "iron lady" and her popularity has soared to the point that there are already rumours (which she quickly dismisses) that she might be the party candidate for Austria and the EU presidency in 2004 when Thomas Klestil's mandate ends. Most importantly, Ferrero-Waldner, who held office from 1995 to the beginning of this year the position of secretary of state in the foreign ministry (under the then foreign minister Schüssel), has also, despite everything, managed to ensure the continuity of Austrian foreign policy, especially as far as its commitment to eastwards enlargement is concerned. It is perhaps interesting to remember that it was Ferrero-Waldner who repeatedly rejected at the end of last year the suggestion of some deputies that Austria should veto Slovakia's EU membership because of its unsafe nuclear reactors. In her role as president of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an institution whose rotating presidency is held this year by Austria, Ferrero-Waldner has also been especially active, recently travelling to Russia (including a visit to Chechnya) and Georgia.

Austria's relations with its Central European neighbours and EU eastwards enlargement remain, of course, amongst the main possible sources of friction between the ÖVP and the notoriously reluctant and sceptical Freedom party. Yet Ferrero-Waldner's natural inclination to favour enlargement has apparently received the support of Schüssel himself. In an interview with the Austrian daily Neue Kronen Zeitung on 22 April, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán expressed his hopes that Austria will not forget its "Central European character". And Schüssel duly answered the appeal when he declared a few days later, before a visit to Hungary: "For me, foreign policy begins in the immediate neighbourhood... It is therefore for me obvious that Austria will come out strongly in favour of Hungary's EU membership as soon as possible. This position has not changed. This is my position since the collapse of Communism." [1]

The participation of the Freedom Party to the government made many Czech, Hungarian and Slovak politicians start shivering, and the future of Austrian attitude towards enlargement could indeed largely be decided in the corridors of Brussels if the Austrian government decides to counter the sanctions by blocking EU reforms. Yet, at the same time, talk of a new Brezhnev doctrine have been heard in certain Central European capitals and "small" Austria, who has been traditionally regarded with distrust and suspicion by some of its neighbours (with the partial exception of Hungary), has secured an undeniable amount of sympathy because of what has been perceived as its unfair treatment in the hands of its bigger and more powerful EU partners.

On the home front

Foreign policy might be a major concern for the government at the moment, but Schüssel, who directed Austrian diplomacy from 1995 until the beginning of the year, now wants to get involved in domestic politics and has stressed that economic and social reforms are his priorities.

The government has started a series of controversial talks about pension reforms, which it hopes to bring to an end before the summer and has drafted an extensive programme of privatisations (most significantly, plans are being developed for the sale of PSK and Telekom Austria; the national printing office, the auction house Dorotheum and the state participation in Vienna's International Airport are set to follow). The first budget presented by the young FPÖ finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser has been denounced by the social democratic and Green opposition as being marked by "austerity" (the European commission thinks on the contrary that it does not go far enough...). Schüssel is apparently intent on what he calls the "further liberalisation of the markets in Austria" and this could have important consequences in a country known for its corporatist traditions, its social market economy and the power of the trade unions.

On Tuesday 16 May, the government-appointed commissioner for the compensation of WWII slave labour workers, Maria Schaumayer presented her plan during a so-called "reconciliation conference" to delegations from Belarus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. Schüssel clearly intends to take a lead in the discussion about the overcoming of Austria's Nazi past and announced two days later that the former Austrian ambassador to the United Nations Ernst Sucharipa would take charge of the "Aryanisation" issue, the restitution of Jewish properties confiscated during the Nazi era. The Chancellor used the opportunity to "project" the government's policies into the future, arguing that "[s/he] who wants to win the future, must clarify its past."

What's next?

The publication on Thursday 6 April, by the magazine News, of the first comprehensive opinion polls since the establishment of the so-called "dark-blue" coalition showed that the ÖVP, who had been lagging behind the FPÖ and had even registered an historic low of under 20 percent not so long ago, appear to have made a significant recovery since the swearing in of the government.
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With 27 percent, it has regained the level of support it had obtained in last October's parliamentary elections, and this increase of the party's popularity has been largely at the expense of its coalition partner, the FPÖ (23 percent instead of 30 percent in March). The ÖVP ministers appeared also far more popular than their FPÖ colleagues. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel gained an "approval rate" of 47 percent (+ 9 percent compared to last month), behind president Klestil (61 percent) but better than the chairman of the SPÖ Alfred Gusenbauer (31 percent). Another earlier survey published by Profil (Monday 3 April) confirmed these trends and gave the following results: SPÖ 33 percent, ÖVP 31 percent, FPÖ 17 percent, Greens 15 percent.

There are several possible reasons for this development. Firstly, there is the sheer fact (a deliberate policy of the ÖVP?) that the FPÖ has been left in charge of sectors such as social affairs, finance and defence, which are in dire need of (often unpopular) reforms.

Secondly, the FPÖ, as Schüssel has repeatedly pointed out, has to manage to transform itself from an opposition party into a governmental force (the Social Democrats meanwhile have to learn to become an opposition force after having spent 30 years in power...). Haider's resignation from the leadership of the Freedom Party has often been interpreted as a mere strategic "coup", part of a master plan which would allow the governor of Carinthia to prepare his bid for the Chancellorship when the next parliamentary elections are due.

Yet one should perhaps not underestimate the extent to which the departure of the charismatic leader could increase or awaken the appetite for power of the new FPÖ ministers: the ambitious 31-year old Grasser could for instance dream to challenge Haider's influence within the party. Even Haider's successor as head of the party, the vice-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer might constitute for herself a power basis within the movement and might turn to be something else than the loyal "master's puppet" she is assumed to be. "I do not think about becoming Chancellor yet," she claims. What though if her yet had to be taken seriously? [2]

Schüssel appears to be especially keen to exploit these potential sources of internal conflicts within the FPÖ. He has consistently treated "Madam the vice-chancellor" as an "'equal'...whether during the joint press conference in front of journalists after the Council of ministers or during...the Ball of the opera."[3] The joint press conferences themselves are indeed an innovation "unheard of under the previous administration." [4]

In conclusion, the coalition seems to be here to stay, if only because adversity ("at home and abroad", as Schüssel said) has given it an unexpected cohesion. On many issues, the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition works better than the former "grand" coalition between SPÖ and ÖVP and even the announced protests of the "social partners" against the government's reform plans might paradoxically be seen a positive sign for the government if they are to supersede the "anti-Haider' style of demonstrations and mark a return to "politics as usual".

What is more, many observers have started to suggest that the SPÖ's recent turn to the left could prove highly problematic and destroy for a long time the electoral credibility of the Social Democrats, in a manner reminiscent of what happened to the British Labour party during Margaret Thatcher's years in power.[5]

Wolfgang Schüssel, who tries to position the People's party in the centre of the political spectrum between the "leftist" SPÖ and the "rightist" FPÖ, would arguably welcome this prospect... - the "Schüssel's way"?

Magali Perrault, 22 May 2000

Moving on:


  1. In an interview with APA, the Austrian Press Agency, 04/24/2000.
  2. Interview with Profil (04/24/2000).
  3. Gernot Bauer and Thomas Hofer, "100 Tage Zweisamkeit", Profil, 01/05/2000.
  4. William Hall, "Austrian couple find isolation only enhances the honeymoon," Financial Times, Friday 12 May 2000, pp.8.
  5. Klaus Grubelnik, Walter Osztovics and Barbara Toth, "Die Bilanz der Wende," Format, 01/05/2000.


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