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Face-off in regional elections
Residents of Burgenland will go to the polls on Sunday 3 December to elect a new regional assembly (Landtag) of 36 deputies. This assembly will subsequently elect the governor of the region.
Burgenland has been a stronghold of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) since 1945. However, Karl Stix, the Social Democratic governor since 1991, is not running for re-election, and the party's new candidate, Hans Niessl, is facing serious competition from the People's Party (ÖVP), led by Gerhard Jellasitz.
The Freedom Party (FPÖ) expects to consolidate its vote since the last elections in 1996, in which it received 14.6 per cent. The Greens are hoping to win more than the five per cent necessary for representation in the assembly. If the Greens are successful, it will be their first time in Burgenland's assembly.
EU enlargement has been at the centre of all political discussions, electoral or otherwise, especially following the FPÖ's drive to collect 10,000 signatures in order to force a referendum on enlargement in Burgenland.
The SPÖ has adopted a positive, yet cautious, attitude toward enlargement, while the ÖVP has accused the FPÖ and the SPÖ of fostering and exploiting anti-Hungarian sentiment in this border region.
The latest opinion polls seemed to forecast a close race between the Social Democrats and the People's Party. The Spectra Institute (Linz) forecasts the following results: the SPÖ could win 39 per cent, the ÖVP 38 per cent, the FPÖ 14 per cent and the Greens five per cent. Another poll, published in the news magazine Profil, gave the SPÖ a more comfortable lead, with 41 per cent, over the ÖVP (36 per cent), the FPÖ (16 per cent) and the Greens (5 per cent).
Burgenland is currently governed by a SPÖ/ÖVP coalition. However, the results of Sunday's election could force political parties into long and complex negotiations to form a new coalition in the region.
Negotiations with EU partners
French President Jacques Chirac and French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine were in Vienna for a few hours on Tuesday 28 November for talks on EU reforms with Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
The upcoming summit at Nice was the main item on the agenda. Ferrero-Waldner voiced Austria's support for enlargement and further said that the country was committed to a general move away from unanimous voting (with each member country having the right of veto) and toward the adoption of qualified majority voting. She emphasised, however, that Austria will not give up the principle of "one country, one commissioner."
Meanwhile, EU Commissioner for the Enlargement Günter Verheugen stated on Tuesday 28 November that the first wave of enlargement will take place between 2003 and 2005 but will be accompanied in some cases by the negotiation of transitional agreements. He added that the EU "will not give Jörg Haider arguments for a referendum on enlargement" (Kurier).
Klestil, "the traitor"?
President Thomas Klestil was attacked on two fronts this week.
The journalist Ernst Hofbauer first accused him, in a book entitled Der Verrat (The Betrayal), of having led the opposition to the People's Party-Freedom Party coalition and being the main person responsible for the imposition of sanctions against Austria (a decision he allegedly "asked" Austria's EU partners to take).
The second attack came from Karl Schnell, the leader of the Freedom Party in Salzburg. Schnell also considers Klestil a "traitor" and called the President a "rogue" (in the "animal" sense of the world). Schnell argued that his comment was meant to be humorous rather than offensive but was immediately criticised by chairwoman of the party Susanne Riess-Passer, Social Affairs Minister Herbert Haupt and Governor of Carinthia Jörg Haider (who have all asked him to apologise for his comments).
Debates on abortion
The minister for women's issues, Herbert Haupt (FPÖ), instigated a debate on abortion this week when he suggested that the abortion of disabled foetuses, diagnosed as suffering from diseases such as Down's syndrome or trisomy, should be restricted and only possible up to the third month of pregnancy. Austrian law currently allows the abortion of disabled foetuses until the ninth month of pregancy.
Haupt received the support of the ÖVP's general secretary, Maria Rauch-Kallat, who argued that the existing law unacceptably assumed a difference of "worth" between disabled and "non-disabled" and promoted a form of eugenism.
The Social Democrats however strongly criticised the Minister's plan and contended that it was patronising and would constitute an attack on women's right to abort.
Temelín and Krško
A round table on the safety of the controversial Czech nuclear power plant Temelín was held in Linz. A delegation of 23 Czech officials (including the director of Temelín, František Hezoučký) argued that the Czech nuclear power plant was as safe as similar nuclear facilities in EU countries and was in no way comparable to Chornobyl. The meeting was attended by 2000 people.
In a related development, the conservative newspaper Die Presse reported this week that the Slovene government was disappointed by Austria's failure to react positively to a EU-sponsored report published last week which concludes that the Slovene nuclear plant at Krško fulfills basic safety requirements and is not located in an area of seismic activity.
Compensation at last?
The Austrian government committed itself at the beginning of the year to launch a programme of compensation and restitution of Jewish property confiscated by the Nazi regime after the Anschluss of 1938. The government's special envoy on the issue, Ernst Sucharipa, held talks this week with US Treasury Deputy Secretary Stuart Eizenstat and announced that Austria will officially present its plans on 21 December. Jewish organisations, supported by the leader of Austria's Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, have asked for the payment of about ATS (Austrian Schillings) 16 billion, which according to Muzicant constitutes merely ten per cent of the value of the property confiscated by the Nazi regime.
And in other news
- Following the publication this week of a new book on Austrian neutrality (Michael Strohmer and Gunther Lutzenberger, Neutralität oder Verteidigungsbündnis), Andreas Khol, the leader of the ÖVP's parliamentary group, argued that the commitment of the Social Democrats to neutrality was the main factor which led to the collapse of the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition after the elections of October 1999. Khol contended that NATO membership should be Austria's objective and described neutrality as a "myth."
- A Gallup opinion poll published this week (in Kurier) puts the People's Party (33 per cent, + 1 per cent compared to last month) ahead of the Social Democrats (30 per cent, unchanged), the Freedom Party (22 per cent, + 2 per cent) and the Greens (12 per cent, - 2 per cent). Were the Chancellor to be directly elected, Schüssel would receive 33 per cent of the votes, ahead of the leader of the Greens, Alexander van der Bellen (11 per cent), chairman of the SPÖ Alfred Gusenbauer (ten per cent) and vice-chancellor and head of the Freedom Party Susanne Riess-Passer (five per cent).
- A non-party organisation called "Aktion EU-Austritt" (EU Exit Action) launched on Wednesday a referendum initiative to try to collect the 100,000 signatures needed to force a debate on Austria's EU membership in the National Assembly. "Aktion EU-Austritt" is demanding that a new referendum be held which would give the Austrian population a chance to reject EU membership.
- The newsmagazine Format published an interview this week with former Social Democrat chancellor Viktor Klima. Klima left political life in February of this year following the failure of his attempts to negotiate the renewal of the coalition with the People's Party. He now lives in Buenos Aires and is director of the Volkswagen firm in Argentina.
Magali Perrault, 1 December 2000
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Today's updated headlines from Austria