2000 has undoubtedly been one of the most eventful years since the inception of Austria's democracy after the Second World War.
The failure of social democratic Chancellor Viktor Klima to negotiate a renewal of the coalition with the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) after the parliamentary elections of October 1999 led to the establishment of a People's Party/Freedom Party (FPÖ) government at the end of January.
The FPÖ, traditionally the "third force" of Austrian politics—after the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the ÖVP—had, of course, already been in power as a junior partner of the SPÖ between 1983 and 1986. However, the election of Jörg Haider as the head of the party in 1986 fundamentally changed the nature and priorities of the FPÖ, which moved towards right-wing "extremism" and was ostracised by both the SPÖ and the ÖVP.
Thus, Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of the ÖVP, broke an enduring taboo of Austrian politics, when he decided to forfeit his party's alliance with the SPÖ and agreed to be "crowned" chancellor with more than a little help from Haider and his troops.
What Schüssel had probably not foreseen was the reactions that such a move would provoke.
Internationally, Austria's fourteen EU partners immediately imposed political sanctions on the Alpine republic to protest against the participation of the FPÖ in the government. Schüssel, it was said, had breached a fundamental principle of the European Union by forging an opportunistic alliance with a party that did not respect the moral and democratic principles at the core of the European project.
Perhaps even more importantly, the new government was confronted by the awakening of a civil society, anxious to remind Europe and the world of the existence of "the other Austria." For instance, on Saturday 19 February, an estimated 200,000 Austrians took to the streets of Vienna under the slogan Keine Koalition mit dem Rassismus (No coalition with racism). Therefore, in many ways, this year might have marked the end of the quiet consensus which many saw as the root of the second republic's prosperity.
Schüssel's gamble rested on two assumptions. First, the new chancellor hoped that the international isolation of Austria would slowly die down by itself and that the EU member states could not durably maintain a united front against the country (and his government).
Secondly, Schüssel was convinced that the FPÖ, once in power, would be forced to give up its more than problematic behaviour and would probably lose a lot of its popular ("oppositional") appeal once the hard task of governing started. This would, Schüssel calculated, put the ÖVP at the centre of Austrian politics, and at the expense of both the SPÖ and the FPÖ.
And, indeed, by December there was evidence that Schüssel, recently described by the French newspaper Libération as a politician "without charisma," might just have managed what many observers thought impossible.
Defending the little guy
On the foreign front, the sanctions quickly became a major embarrassment for the EU, when Austria earned for itself a certain degree of sympathy in some EU and Central European states as a "defender" of the interests of small states.
France, who holds the EU presidency for the second semester of 2000 and was seen as the most ardent supporter of the sanctions—if only because both its Gaullist President Jacques Chirac and socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin remain fearful of France's far-right, was soon left to find a way out of the crisis.
In September, therefore, the three "wise men" appointed by the EU, Martti Ahtisaari, Jochen Frowein and Marcelino Oreja, concluded that the Austrian government "adheres to common European values" and recommended an immediate end to the sanctions—a convenient suggestion quickly taken up by the EU a few weeks before the Danish referendum on the Euro.
On the domestic front, the ÖVP appears to have benefited from the troubles of its coalition partner. The FPÖ, which has been headed by vice-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer since Haider resigned on 1 May, has had a bad second semester. It has been the great loser of the year's two regional elections in Styria and Burgenland, despite having adopted a populist anti-enlargement agenda in Burgenland, a region which borders Slovakia and Hungary.
The FPÖ has also been plagued by allegations that some of its most prominent leaders, including Haider himself, had obtained and used confidential information on some of the party's political opponents.
What is more, the party appears increasingly divided between a pragmatic faction represented by the FPÖ's government ministers in Vienna—above all, the young and ambitious finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser—and the hard-line supporters of Haider, now governor of the Land of Carinthia.
Riess-Passer, who was originally seen by many as nothing more than a "Haider puppet," has been increasingly ready to distance herself from Haider's rhetoric and has recently been keen to remind everybody that she, not the governor of Carinthia, is the "boss."
Given all this, it's not surprising to see many public opinion polls regularly showing the ÖVP leading the field, often in front of the SPÖ, which still constitutes the largest parliamentary force.
Following the Burgenland elections on 3 December, the two parties might decide to form a coalition at the regional level. Together they could have a majority of 19 seats in the 26-member assembly. It is, of course, too early to say whether this regional experiment could be reproduced at a federal level in the future—if it happens at all.
Secondly, now that the EU sanctions cannot be exploited as a factor of "national unity," the government's policies of financial austerity, ie, the "zero budgetary deficit" promised by Grasser for 2002, might start to affect its popularity and give the SPÖ and the Greens the opportunity to rally their natural constituencies.
2001 promises to be another decisive year for Austrian politics, with an important regional election in Vienna that could, arguably, mark the beginning of the end for the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition. What is certain, however, is that the divisions of 2000 will continue to weigh on the Austrian political landscape for many years to come.
Magali Perrault, 11 December 2000
- Archived articles on Austria
- Archive of author's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Austria through CER
- Return to CER front page