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Political Dynamics

Between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, when some new trends became evident, Austria's political system seemed stable and unchangeable. Most political scientists considered Austria a classic case of constitutional democracy, that is, a political system in which cohesive social groups are closely identified with political parties. According to this theory, Austrian politics, business, and society in general were decisively shaped by the influence of three major social camps, or subcultures (Lager)--the socialist, the Catholicconservative , and the German-nationalist.

The most important factors in determining to which subculture a person belonged were geographic location (rural or urban), socioeconomic status, and professional occupation. The socialist camp had its basis in the urban working class of Vienna and other cities and in the intellectual class. The Catholic-conservative camp had its traditional base in the small towns and farming communities of Austria and was almost exclusively Roman Catholic. The German-nationalist camp was smaller than the other two subcultures and was founded on the enthusiasm for union with Germany that was prevalent during the years of the First Republic (1918-38). A high percentage of its members came from whitecollar professions.
Bruno Kreisky, federal chancellor, 1970-83. Courtesy Austrian National Tourist Office, New York.

Austria's subcultures provided their members with a selfcontained milieu in which to pursue their lives and a variety of occupations. In addition to the political parties aligned with the Lager, each camp featured professional and trade organizations that played an important role in party politics and in society as well.

This traditional system has continued into the 1990s. In 1993, in the socialist camp, the key organizations affiliated with the SPÖ were the Group of Socialist Trade Unionists (Fraktion Sozialistischer Gewerkschaftler--FSG), the Free Business Association of Austria (Freier Wirtschaftsverband Österreichs--FWB), and the SPÖ Farmers (SPÖ-Bauern). In the Catholic-conservative camp, the chief organizations of the ÖVP were the League of Austrian Workers and Salaried Employees (Österreichischer Arbeiter- und Angestelltenbund--ÖAAB), the League of Austrian Business (Österreichischer Wirtschaftsbund-- ÖWB), and the League of Austrian Farmers (Österreichischer Bauernbund--ÖBB). The German-nationalist camp, which is represented by the FPÖ, had only one auxiliary organization of note as of 1993, the Circle of Free Business Persons (Ring Freiheitlicher Wirtschaftstreibender--RFW).

A key source of influence for the professional and trade organizations is their control of the chambers of agriculture, commerce, and labor. In the Austrian corporatist system, the chambers are assigned responsibility for implementing certain aspects of economic laws and regulations. Moreover, membership in the chambers is obligatory for persons employed in a wide range of occupations. Thus, the professional and trade organizations and the chambers are assured a large amount of influence in the public realm. The ÖVP dominates the Chamber of Agriculture through the ÖAAB and the Chamber of Commerce through the ÖWB. The SPÖ has a controlling influence in the Chamber of Labor through the FSG.

The Austrian system of interests was dominated by the socialist and Catholic-conservative camps for virtually the entire postwar period. During the early years of the Second Republic, politicians of the SPÖ and ÖVP were adamant about the need for political consensus and compromise. One overriding reason for the emergence of a system designed to avoid conflict was the negative experience of the 1930s, when the political parties clashed so vehemently that they ended up fighting a short civil war in 1934. During the period of Nazi rule, many Austrian politicians found themselves imprisoned alongside their political opponents. This shared fate convinced the country's political elite of the imperative for consensus in postwar Austria. From 1945 to 1966, the country was ruled by the grand coalition formed by the ÖVP and the SPÖ, an astonishing duration of a series of governments composed of Austria's two main political competitors. The cumulative effect of a variety of changes in Austrian society in the postwar era has led many political scientists to conclude that the strength of the political camps, or Lager, has weakened significantly. A major shift in the way people earn their livelihood--a decline in farming and manufacturing and a growth in the services sector--has weakened the hold of the Lager on voters. An increasingly secularized society has lessened the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. An increased sense of Austria's existence as a nation (up from less than 50 percent in the mid-1960s to 74 percent in one poll in 1990) has reduced the political potency of pan-Germanism. And the growth of the suburbs and the transformation of rural areas by tourism have reduced the homogeneity of traditional SPÖ and ÖVP enclaves.
Franz Vranitzky, federal chancellor, 1987-1997. Courtesy Austrian National Tourist Office, New York.

The weakened hold of the Lager on Austrian society and politics has created opportunities for smaller parties. A 1990 poll showed that only 50 percent of respondents claimed some kind of identification with a political party; a mere 20 percent claimed strong identification. In the 1960s and 1970s, similar polls had shown that more than 30 percent of Austrians identified closely with a party. Services-sector, or white-collar, employees were often part of a block of so-called floating voters who did not identify with a particular party. This block can be the key to an electoral victory for the party that wins its votes.

The propensity toward what political scientists call electoral dealignment, that is, the breakdown of long-standing voter loyalties, was bound to have effects on Austrian voting behavior, and by 1986 the first signs of change were evident. In the parliamentary election of that year, the combined vote for the ÖVP and SPÖ fell to 84 percent, the first time since 1962 that it had dropped below 90 percent. The party benefiting the most from the losses by the major parties was the FPÖ, which doubled its vote. Moreover, for the first time ever, members of the Green political movement entered parliament.

Selected Nationalrat Election Results, 1945-1990

(in percentages of valid votes and number of seats)
Year SPÖ1 ÖVP2 FPÖ3 KPÖ 4 Greens5
Percentage Seats Percentage Seats Percentage Seats Percentage Seats Percentage Seats
1945 45 76 50 85 --- --- 5 4 --- ---
1949 39 67 44 77 12 16 5 5 --- ---
1953 42 73 41 74 11 14 5 4 --- ---
1956 43 74 46 82 7 6 4 3 --- ---
1959 45 78 44 79 8 8 3 0 --- ---
1962 44 76 45 81 7 8 3 0 --- ---
1966 43 74 48 85 5 6 1 0 --- ---
1970 48 81 45 78 6 6 1 0 --- ---
1971 50 93 43 80 6 10 1 0 --- ---
1975 51 93 43 80 5 10 1 0 --- ---
1979 51 95 42 77 6 11 1 0 --- ---
1983 48 90 43 81 5 12 1 0 --- ---
1986 43 80 41 77 10 18 1 0 5 8
1990 43 80 32 60 17 33 0 0 5 10
--- means not applicable.
1 Sozialistische Partei Österreichs (Socialist Party of Austria).
2 Österreichische Volkspartei (Austrian People's Party).
3 Freiheitlich Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria).
4 Kommunistische Partei Österreichs (Communist Party of Austria).
5 Greens are those environmentalist groups elected to the Nationalrat. The various groups that make up the Greens were formed in the 1980s. They gained their first seats in 1986.

Source: Based on information from Austria, Österreichisches Statistisches Zentralamt, Statistisches Handbuch für die Republik Österreich, 1991, Vienna, 1991, 424.

The trend away from the dominance of the Lager system continued in the next parliamentary election in 1990, but this time it was the ÖVP alone that bore the brunt. Its share of the vote declined from 41.3 to 32.1 percent, a massive loss by the standard of Austria's ultrastable political system. The FPÖ had another striking success, and the environmentalists lost some votes but gained two seats in the Nationalrat.

Although the 1990 election did not lead to a change in government (because the ÖVP and SPÖ had renewed their grand coalition in 1987), it nevertheless marked a watershed in Austrian political history. For the first time in the Second Republic, the status of the ÖVP as a major party was placed in doubt. Whereas in the 1986 election the ÖVP received only 88,000 fewer votes than the SPÖ, in 1990 the difference ballooned to more than 500,000. Under its colorful leader, Jörg Haider, the FPÖ was changing the Austrian party system from one dominated by two parties to one with multiparty possibilities.

Last Update: 2009-06-21