Will Austria finally say “Wiedersehen” to Jörg Haider?

Will Austria finally say “Wiedersehen” to Jörg Haider?

A guest article by Paul Maggs

Two overseas elections take place on 1st October. Brazil holds the first round of its presidential election, and President Lula is virtually assured of victory – indeed he may clear the required 50% share on the first ballot. Closer to home, Austria also goes to the polls, but here the outcome is less clear-cut. A recent poll gives the ruling centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) a 2-point lead over the Social Democrats (SPÖ) – all polls have given the ÖVP a lead, mostly in the 4-6 point range. The betting market reflects the ÖVP poll advantage – they are at 2-9, while the SPÖ price is 5-2.

Traditionally, Austrian politics has been fairly stable, often emphasising a consensual approach – the SPÖ and ÖVP governed together in a “grand coalition” between 1987 and 2000. However, the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), led by Jörg Haider since 1986, was gradually increasing its vote share, and it was the October 1999 election that had international repercussions, as Haider’s party took 27% of the vote, pushing the ÖVP into third place (by just 415 votes). The FPÖ was the most popular party amongst men, won 47% of the working-class vote, and also finished top in Carinthia and Salzburg.

A new government was not formed until February 2000 – a “black-blue” coalition between the ÖVP and FPÖ, with ÖVP leader Wolfgang Schüssel becoming the new Chancellor. Although Haider was not in the government, the new administration was extremely controversial, and as well as facing demonstrations at home, was a paraiah abroad, with Israel withdrawing its ambassador, and the EU refusing to co-operate fully with Austria. Not until EU “wise men” had visited and declared the situation satisfactory did things quieten down somewhat.

By the November 2002 elections, the landscape was very different. Haider resigned the FPÖ leadership in 2000, but remained powerful, and the subsequent infighting in the party (there were three leaders in 2002), combined with Chancellor Schüssel stealing some of the FPÖ’s policies, resulted in a massive swing of 16% from the FPÖ to the ÖVP. The People’s Party won its first election since 1966, while the Freedom Party were virtually wiped out, crashing to only 10% of the vote, and winning a mere eight villages in the entire country. The ÖVP-FPÖ coalition was renewed, although this time the “terms of trade” were massively in the ÖVP’s favour, and there was no international outcry.

In March 2004 Haider was re-elected Governor of Carinthia, with the FPÖ taking 42% of the vote, but in April 2005 he left the FPÖ and set up a new party, the BZÖ, with the government becoming an ÖVP-BZÖ coalition, and the BZÖ and FPÖ have been competing for the right-wing vote ever since. Although the FPÖ in Haider’s Carinthia heartland defected en masse to the new outfit, elsewhere the BZÖ obtained derisory scores in provincial elections, with just 1-2% of the vote in Styria and Vienna. Haider stood down as leader in June 2006 but is still a key figure.

Ahead of October’s election, the makeup of the new government is uncertain. Parties only win seats if they clear 4% of the vote, but as this operates at both regional and national level, a party might win seats even if they are below 4% nationally. The Greens are currently polling around 11%, while the FPÖ also look set to enter the new parliament. The big question marks are how many seats the BZÖ (polling 3-4%) will win, and also whether the Hans-Peter Martin list, hovering around 4-5% on a “clean politics” platform, will secure seats. The permutations may vary depending on who clears the 4% threshold – the likeliest coalitions are another “black-blue” ÖVP-FPÖ, an ÖVP-SPÖ (or vice versa) “grand coalition”, with a red-green government also a possibility. SPÖ leader Alfred Gusenbauer has already stated “Keine Koalition” (no coalition) with the FPÖ/BZÖ.

The ÖVP have the upper hand on leadership – Schüssel’s net popularity rating is +13 (not bad after six and a half years in office) while Gusenbauer scored –1, and in a poll regarding the best leader for each party, the preferred leader for the SPÖ was Gabi Burgstaller, the Governor of Salzburg province. If the SPÖ aren’t in the new government and don’t finish first, Gusenbauer might step down (having also lost in 2002), and Burgstaller could be a frontrunner to become party leader, and possibly Austria’s answer to Ségolène Royal or Angela Merkel.

Finally, among Austria’s nine provinces, Upper Austria and Styria are the “swing states” to watch for the battle between the big two parties. “Red” Vienna, Social Democrat since the war, should be comfortable for the SPÖ once again, while the People’s Party ought to be home and dry in their Alpine strongholds of Tirol and Vorarlberg. Carinthia is the only province where the BZÖ are likely to make any showing, and by tea-time on 1st October, we should know whether Haider is still clinging onto the political scene by his fingertips, or if we have maybe witnessed his last hurrah on the national stage.

Paul Maggs (“Double Carpet”) is a pundit and analyst for UK and international politics and has run several competitions on politicalbetting.com.

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