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There were heated debates on the budget in the national assembly this week.
Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser defended his budget, arguing that his objective of a balanced budget ("zero deficit") would indeed be reached by 2002.
One of the most controversial points of his budget was the plan to sell some of the properties and flats owned by the state to private investors—a move denounced by the opposition as likely to provoke a sharp rise in the rents. The budget also provoked further discontent among teachers and university lecturers, and a demonstration is planned for 6 December. Road blockades all over Austria are also being prepared by several organisations for 5 December to protest against the consequences of the austerity measures for the lowest income levels of the population.
A compromise was however signed with pensioners' associations, and pensions will increase by 0.8 percent next year. There will be an additional payment of 0.7 percent of the pensioners' annual income. The cost of the measures is reported to be about ATS 4.5 billion (USD 270 million).
More trouble for the Freedom Party
The controversy surrounding allegations that some Freedom Party leaders illegally obtained and used confidential data about political opponents continued this week.
The public prosecutor has launched an inquiry into the role of the Freedom Party Justice Minister, Dieter Böhmdorfer, and as a result, Peter Pilz, the spokesman of the Green Party for security issues, immediately called for the resignation of Böhmdorfer.
The Social Democrats and the Greens asked for the creation of a parliamentary committee on the affair on Wednesday afternoon in the National Assembly, but the People's Party and the Freedom Party have argued that the investigation currently being conducted by the Interior Ministry is both impartial and thorough.
Elections in Burgenland
Burgenland will go to the polls to elect a new regional assembly and a new governor on 3 December.
Karl Stix, who has been the Social Democratic governor since 1991, is not running for reelection and the Party's candidate, Hans Niessl, will try to maintain the Social Democratic domination of the region.
However, the People's Party, led by Gerhard Jellasitz, hopes to win in Burgenland, for the first time since 1964. They would then earn the right to nominate the governor.
The Freedom Party has campaigned on a platform that is fiercely anti-enlargement of the EU and hopes to collect enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue, at least in Burgenland—an idea that has been strongly rejected by all the other parties.
Two issues still to be decided are whether the Freedom Party would be willing to form a coalition with the People's Party in Burgenland, similar to the one at the federal level (Vice-Chancellor of the Freedom Party as well as Party Chairwoman Susanne Riess-Passer, who visited Burgenland on Thursday, refused to address the question), and whether the Greens will manage for the first time to obtain the five percent needed to gain representation in the regional assembly.
The results of the latest elections held in Burgenland in 1996 were: 44.5 percent for the Social Democrats, 36 percent for the People's Party and 14.6 percent for the Freedom Party. The region is currently ruled by a coalition of the Social Democratics and the People's Party.
In Styria, where regional elections were held last month, the new Finance Minister, Herbert Paierl of the People's Party, wants to reform the public sector. In an interview with Der Standard, Paierl declared that he was considering privatising some of the region's assets and properties.
Negotiations with EU partners
The European Summit at Nice is fast approaching and Austria has confirmed its commitment to the principle of "one country, one commissioner in Brussels" this week. This is in opposition to the Franco-German plan to introduce a rotation system for the appointment of commissioners.
Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel was in Dublin on Thursday and noted that Ireland and Austria, both smaller states within the EU, agreed on the principle "one country, one commissioner" (a principle, which, according to Austrian officials, is also in the interest of Central Europe's EU hopefuls). Schüssel also added that giving more powers to the president of the Commission could reinforce the EU.
It was also confirmed on Monday that Austria had pledged 2000 soldiers to the newly created European Rapid Reaction Force.
French President Jacques Chirac and French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine will be in Vienna for a few hours on Tuesday 28 November to hold talks on EU reforms with Schüssel and Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
And in other news...
- It was announced on Friday that Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel will meet his Czech counterpart Miloš Zeman on 12 December to continue the negotiations on the controversial Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin.
- The newspaper Die Presse quoted figures which showed that tourists from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary spent an annual total of ATS 15 billion (USD 915 million) in Vienna and its region. The bulk of this sum consists of clothes and shoes, cosmetics and electronic devices. More than 60 percent of Czech, Slovak and Hungarian tourists stay in Vienna for less than one day.
- The Freedom Party is continuing its campaign against EU enlargement in the region of Lower Austria. Barbara Rosenkranz, the leader of the party's parliamentary group in the regional parliament, contended that the border region of Lower Austria would suffer as a result of competition from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland and cheaper agricultural products. She argued that there should be "no enlargement without a referendum in Lower Austria."
- The National Assembly adopted a law which would allow divorced or separated parents to obtain joint custody of their children. The People's Party and the Freedom Party see the move (which is to be effective as of July 2001) as a positive step to ensure child welfare, but the Social Democrats criticised it for allowing fathers to put pressure on their ex-wives.
- Beate Winkler, the director of the Vienna-based European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia criticised the Austrian government for its failure to actively support the activities of the Centre on Friday. Winkler stated that several meetings with government officials had been repeatedly postponed and added that the government had so far only agreed to contribute to 50 percent of the premises' costs.
- Ariel Muzicant, the leader of Austria's Jewish community, expressed his concerns on Thursday for the future of the Jews in the country. He emphasised that the Jewish population was declining and suggested that the current German policy which aims to favour Jewish immigration (100,000 Jews have moved to Germany since 1992) could be a model for Austria.
- Two weeks after the catastrophic fire at Kaprun, which killed 155 people, a series of avalanches killed 3 skiers in Tirol on Sunday 19 November.
- Education minister Elisabeth Gehrer launched an initiative ("Action plan 2003") this week to further the self-confidence of young women and broaden their professional orientations. One of the goals is to increase the interest of women in computers, information technology and science, as reported by Der Standard.
Magali Perrault, 25 November 2000
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Today's updated headlines from Austria