Politics of Austria

Politics of Austria

The Politics of Austria take place in a framework of a federal parliamentary representative democratic republic, with a Federal Chancellor as the head of government, and a Federal President as head of state. Executive power is exercised by the governments, both local and federal. Federal legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of parliament, the National Council and the Federal Council. Since 1949 the political landscape has been largely dominated by the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ).

The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature, and exclusively federal in nature: there are no state courts.

The ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation state of Austria is the small but prosperous remnant of Austria-Hungary, a vast multinational empire that ceased to exist in 1918. The Austrian Republic was preceded by a constitutional monarchy, whose legislative bodies were often marked by their contentiousness. However, as Niall Ferguson points out in his history of the start of World War One, The Pity of War, Austria-Hungary had a more representative parliament than the United Kingdom, in that same time period, and was led by a left-of-center coalition.

Austria's first attempt at republican governance, after the fall of the monarchy, was severely hampered by the crippling economic costs of war reparations required by the victorious Allies. Austria's First Republic (1918-1938) gradually degenerated into a clerical fascist dictatorship between 1933-1934, in large part, as a response to the external threat posed by Nazi Germany. This threat was clearly demonstrated in 1934, by the Nazi-led assassination of Austria's Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. The semblance of any republican government in Austria ended with German invasion and annexation in 1938. Following the defeat of Germany in 1945, and the end of the allied occupation ten years later, Austria resumed its republican government. The beginning of the 21st century marked, for Austria, a half-century of a stable government under a constitutional federal republican system. It is governed according to the principles of representative democracy and the rule of law. The constitutional framework of the politics of Austria and the marrow of the constitution's practical implementation are widely agreed to be robust and adequately conducive to peaceful change.


"Main article: Constitution of Austria"

Even though the Republic of Austria is just slightly larger than Maine, Scotland, or Hokkaidō, and even though it is home to an ethnically and culturally homogeneous population of barely more than eight million people, Austria's constitution characterizes the republic as a federation consisting of nine autonomous federal states. Both the federation and all its states have written constitutions defining them to be republican entities governed according to the principles of representative democracy. Aside from the fact that the states of Austria lack an independent judiciary on the one hand and that their autonomy is largely notional on the other hand, Austria's government structure is surprisingly similar to that of much larger federal republics such as Germany or the United States.

Executive branch

Austria's head of state is the "Bundespräsident" (Federal President), elected by popular vote for a term of six years and limited to two consecutive terms of office.

The federal cabinet consists of the "Bundeskanzler" (Federal Chancellor, prime minister) appointed by the president and a number of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the chancellor. The federal cabinet is answerable to the National Council and can be forced to resign by a motion of no confidence. Traditionally the president assigns the chairperson of the party with the largest number of seats in the National Council with building the cabinet. However the National Council is elected by proportional representation and different coalitions of parties represented in it are possible. Therefore the president cannot select a cabinet at his/her discretion but has to respect the will of the majority of deputies to the National Council.

The office of the Federal President is largely ceremonial, although the constitution allows the president to dismiss the cabinet or to dissolve the National Council and call new elections. The "Bundesversammlung" (Federal Assembly), which is formed by National Council and Federal Council in joint session, can call a referendum on the impeachment of the president if it concludes that the president violated the constitution.

Federal President
Heinz Fischer
8 July 2004
Chancellor of Austria
Alfred Gusenbauer
11 January 2007
Vice Chancellor
Wilhelm Molterer
11 January 2007

This form of government could be described as a mixture between parliamentary and presidential democracy. But during the Second Republic until the present day no president ever has used one of the above mentioned rights, and they generally refrained from intervening in day-to-day political conflicts.

The federal government is subject to significant, albeit decreasing, influence by state-approved, compulsory-membership chambers of labour, commerce and agriculture, as well as by trade unions and lobbyist groups. During periods of coalition government by the two large political camps, conservatives and social democrats, this has led to a system called Proporz, where all jobs in the public administration were evenly distributed to supporters of the two parties. At that time the so-called "Sozialpartnerschaft" (socio-economic partnership) between the chambers of commerce and labour decided on large parts of Austria's economic policy. These decisions were made in back-room meetings and then forwarded to the parliament where they were enacted without discussion.

Following Austria's admittance into the European Union in 1995, the federal government has also begun ceding core responsibilities to supranational institutions at an increasing rate.

Legislative branch

The Parliament of Austria ("Parlament") consists of two chambers. The National Council ("Nationalrat") has 183 members, elected for a four year term by proportional representation. It is the predominant of the legislature's two chambers. A so-called "Four Percent Hurdle" prevents a large splintering of the political landscape in the Nationalrat by awarding seats only to political parties that have obtained at least a four percent threshold of the general vote, or alternatively, have won a direct seat, or "Direktmandat", in one of the 43 regional election districts.

The politically much less significant Federal Council ("Bundesrat") has 64 members, elected from five to six years by the provincial parliaments. The power of the Federal Council is rather limited, since its veto has only deferring effect, and can be overruled by the National Council.

A convention, called the "Österreich–Konvent" [http://www.konvent.gv.at/] was convened in June 30, 2003 to decide upon suggestions to reform the constitution, but has failed to produce a proposal that would receive the two thirds of votes in the Nationalrat necessary for constitutional amendments and/or reform. However, some important parts of the final report were generally agreed upon and are still expected to be implemented.

Political parties and elections

Political Conditions

Since World War II, Austria has enjoyed political stability. A Socialist elder statesman, Dr. Karl Renner, organized an Austrian administration in the aftermath of the war, and general elections were held in November 1945. In that election, the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) obtained 50% of the vote (85 seats) in the National Council, the Socialists won 45% (76 seats), and the communists won 5% (4 seats). The ensuing three-party government ruled until 1947, when the communists left the government and the ÖVP led a governing coalition with the socialists (now called the Social Democratic Party or SPÖ) that governed until 1966. In that year, the ÖVP won an absolute majority and ruled alone for the next four years. The tables turned in 1970, when the SPÖ became the strongest party for the first time, surprisingly winning an absolute majority under its charismatic leader Bruno Kreisky in 1971. Between 1971 and 1999, the SPÖ ruled the country either alone or in conjunction with the ÖVP, except from 1983-86, when it governed in coalition with the Freedom Party (this coalition broke when the right-wing politician Jörg Haider became the leader of the Freedom Party).

After the election of 1999, despite emerging only in third place after the elections, the ÖVP formed a coalition with the right wing-populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) in early 2000. The SPÖ, which was the strongest party in the 1999 elections, and the Greens now form the opposition. As a result of the inclusion of the FPÖ on the government, the EU imposed symbolic sanctions on Austria, which were revoked six months later. The U.S. and Israel, as well as various other countries, also reduced contacts with the Austrian Government. The ÖVP was re-elected, this time with a plurality of votes, in the 2002 elections, and formed another coalition government with the FPÖ, this time largely ignored by other countries.

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) traditionally draws its constituency from blue- and white-collar workers. Accordingly, much of its strength lies in urban and industrialized areas. In the 2002 national elections, it garnered 36.5% of the vote. The SPÖ in the past advocated heavy state involvement in Austria's key industries, the extension of social security benefits, and a full-employment policy. Beginning in the mid-1980s, it shifted its focus to free market-oriented economic policies, balancing the federal budget, and European Union (EU) membership.

The People's Party (ÖVP) advocates conservative financial policies and privatization of much of Austria's nationalized industry and finds support from farmers, large and small business owners, and lay Catholic groups, but also from voters without party affiliation, with strongholds in the rural regions of Austria. In 2002, it received 42.3% of the vote. The rightist Freedom Party (FPÖ) attracts protest votes and those who desire no association with the other major parties. The party's mixture of populism and anti-establishment themes propagated by its aggressive leader Jörg Haider steadily gained support from the beginning of Jörg Haider's leadership in 1986 until it attracted about 27% of the vote in the 1999 elections. However, their voters were soon disillusioned by the party's style of government, and in the 2002 elections they were reduced to just 10%. Recent regional and communal elections led to further losses.

The Greens (GRÜNE), a left-of-center party focusing on social and environmental issues, received 9.4% of the vote in 2002. They are particularly strong in the city areas, for example in Vienna, where they received 22% of the votes in the 2004 EU-elections. In Neubau they received 41% of the votes, more than SPÖ and ÖVP combined. The Greens attract left-wing intellectuals and voters from 18-30.

The Liberal Forum (LIF), founded on liberal ideals, split from the Freedom Movement in February 1993. It received 3.65% of the vote in the 1999 election and thus failed to re-enter the national legislature. After being reduced to under 1% in the 2002 election, they disappeared almost completely from public view.

After major disputes inside the FPÖ between Haider and vice-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer (the so-called Knittelfeld Putsch), the ÖVP broke the coalition in 2002 and called for re-elections. Riess-Passer left the FPÖ, and the former Minister of Social Services, Herbert Haupt, was appointed as new leader. In a brilliant marketing move, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel convinced the then very popular Minister of Finance Karl-Heinz Grasser to change from the FPÖ to the ÖVP.

Not only was the FPÖ publicly blamed for breaking the coalition and had lost Minister Grasser to the ÖVP, their style of government and broken promises also left many of their former voter disillusioned. In the elections, which were held on 24 November 2002, they suffered the biggest loss of votes in Austria's history, going down from 27% to only 10%. Most of these losses went to the ÖVP, which went up from 26% to 42%, the highest value for decades. Both Greens and Social Democrats gained votes, but not enough to form a coalition (only 85 of 183 seats).

Against public opinion (which was in favour of an ÖVP-SPÖ coalition government) Chancellor Schüssel renewed the coalition between the ÖVP and FPÖ.

Despite being exposed to fierce criticism from the opposition parties for failed or highly unfavorable privatization deals, the highest tax rates and unemployment figures since 1945, a questionable fighter jet purchase and repeated accusations that Finance Minister Grasser may have evaded taxes, the government seems to be the most stable in decades as both parties are afraid of losing votes. Recent law changes concerning the police, the national television and radio company, the federal railways and the social security system have led to an increase of the ÖVP's and FPÖ's influence in these bodies.

In early April 2005, following severe disputes within the FPÖ, Jörg Haider announced the creation of a new party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). All FPÖ members of government and most members of parliament joined the BZÖ, but the picture after the split looks very diverse on state and local levels. However, as of April 2005, it seems that the current coalition holds, as neither the ÖVP, nor the BZÖ or the FPÖ has any interest in holding early elections, which those parties are likely to lose.

Recent events

The Social-democrats under Alfred Gusenbauer emerged as the winner of Austria's general election in October 2006. After negotiations with the ÖVP were successfully concluded Alfred Gusenbauer and his SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government were sworn in on January 11, 2007 by President Heinz Fischer.

Overview of political pressure groups and lobbies

Austrian Trade Union Federation - ÖGB; Economic Chamber of Austria - WKO; Federation of Austrian Industry - VOeI; Chamber of Labor - AK, Conference of the Presidents of Farmers' Chambers.
Roman Catholic Church, including its chief lay organization, Catholic Action, Austrian National Union of Students - ÖH;

International organization participation


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