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AUSTRIA: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Noah C. Graubart*

At the conclusion of the original period of study, in 1963, Austria could have been safely categorized as a two and a half party system, consisting of two major parties, and one significantly smaller one. However, with the meteoric rise of the radical-right Freedom Party, one scholar noted after the 1986 election that "the Austrian two-party mould was disintegrating as the country clumsily and belatedly moved into line with other Œnormal‚ western democracies (Sully, 1990: 65)." Today, in contrast to the two party predictability of a half-century ago, Austria possesses a functioning multi-party system.

For many of the years since 1963, Austria has been ruled by a Grand Coalition of the center-right People's Party (OVP) and the Social Democrats (SPO) on the left. The 1962 general elections had resulted in this sort of arrangement, albeit a short-lived one. In 1966, gaining the first outright majority in parliament since 1945, the OVP formed the "first single party government during our study (Janda, 1980: 319)." The electoral gains of the OVP were described by the press as the result of OVP electoral support from young, Vienna-based working class voters. Additionally, it was believed that the SPO suffered losses because of the stigma attached to it because of the endorsement its candidates had received by the Communist Party (Keesing, 1966: 21288).

In 1967, the SPO elected a new Chairperson, Bruno Kreisky. Kreisky, a Vienna-born Jew, had spent World War II in Sweden after barely escaping being sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. During this time in Sweden, Kreisky became friends with fellow Social Democrat and future Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt (Keesing, 1966: 21288). Kreisky would eventually serve as Chancellor of Austria for over 13 years.

This change in leadership proved precipitous for the SPO, which garnered nearly fifty percent of the electoral support in the general elections of 1970. Rather than form a coalition, however, after negotiations failed with the OVP, the SPO, which commanded forty-nine percent of the parliamentary seats formed a minority government under Chancellor Kreisky. Kreisky, however, pledged that if at any point the party's minority status prevented it from implementing its program, he would dissolve parliament. Therefore, a year later, he was forced to do just that, and new elections were held (Keesing, 1971: 24938).

This time, however, Kreisky and the Socialists gained inroads in traditional OVP strongholds, and won an outright majority (Keesing, 1971: 24938). This majority government remained in place for over a decade. In fact, at the next election, in 1975, the proportions of parliamentary representation remained precisely the same as in 1971 (Kessing, 1975: 27444). The SPO government, with Kreisky as Chancellor, would remain in power alone until the elections of 1983.

The 1980s proved to be turbulent ones for Austrian politics. In 1983 the Social Democrats lost their thirteen year long hold on power as their parliamentary majority shrink to forty-eight percent of seats in the lower house. Rather than a return to the Grand Coalition days of the 1960s, the SPO elected to include the Freedom Party in the governing coalition. This represented a significant break from traditional Austrian Politics. Never in the postwar period had a party other than the SPO or OVP been a member of a coalition government. As one scholar of Austrian politics wrote, the FPO electoral support, post-1983, represented a "new conservative, nationalist revolt" (Fitzmaurice, 1990: 107). One that was short lived, however, as the FPO proved to be unfit for government, better characterized as "irresponsible opposition" (Fitzmaurice, 1990: 107). As a result, the Freedom Party would not see power again for over a decade. Consequently, a young FPO politician from the Carinthian Province rose to power within the party. His name was Jorg Haider. Haider electrified the FPO's electoral success over the next decade and beyond. According to Austrian historian Melanie Sully, "Haider's success at the polls were the result of the electorate's frustration with the two main parties and reflected his dexterity and opportunism" (Sully, 1990: 74).

While 1986, on the one hand, represented a return to the stability of old, with the OVP and SPO once again forming the government, the events of the year produced shockwaves that would be felt for years to come. Earl in 1985, the OVP nominated well- known Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim as their candidate for the 1986 Presidential elections. As the elections approached, questions began to be raised about Waldheim's past, specifically his actions during WWII. While Waldheim openly admitted he had served in the German Wehrmacht during the war, he asserted that he spent much of his service in Vienna, studying law and recuperating from wounds. However, with further investigation, it was revealed that he had spent significant time in the Balkans, where the Nazi war machine had committed unspeakable atrocities against Jews and others during World War II. While Waldheim denied any first hand experience with these war crimes, "many found this difficult to swallow (Sully, 1990: 83)." Eventually, amid these allegations of cover-up, Waldheim triumphed in the Presidential election. The uproar, however, did not subside.

U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese concluded that the evidence "establishe[d] a prima facie case that Kurt Waldheim assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of persons because of race, religion, national origin or political opinion (found in Sully 89)." As required by U.S. statute, Walheim's name was added to the "watch list", a distinction that made him ineligible to receive a visa to enter the U.S. Waldheim was the only head-of-state on the list. This action, combined with the overall international stigma associated with Waldheim, served to isolate Austria in the international community. The Walheim affair brought attention to the central paradox of the Austrian post-war experience. While Austrians had accepted their role as victims of the Nazi era, they had never accepted responsibility as partners (Sully, 1990: 114). It was this dualism that the Waldheim affair brought to the foreground.

While the next thirteen years would see a continuation of the SPO-OVP coalition in government, the 1986 elections did witness breakthrough in Austrian politics. The Green Alternative List Party broke through the electoral stranglehold of the three traditional parties, gaining four percent of the parliamentary representation; a number which would steadily rise over the next decade.

While 1990 witnessed a continuation of the SPO-OVP coalition, the election marked the worst electoral performance by the People's Party in years. In fact the OVP lost nearly one-quarter of its seats in parliament. Much of this loss was to the benefit of the FPO, which had been gaining in strength ever since the 1986 election of Jorg Haider as party leader. The Freedom Party now possessed nearly one fifth of the seats in the Nationalrat, or the lower house of parliament. Haider attacked the two main parties for scandals in which the government had been involved, and cashed in on the general alienation of voters from the other parties.

In 1995, the OVP continued to lose support at the polls. The FPO continued to benefit from these gains by threatening the OVP on its right flank (Fitzmaurice, 1990:104). Also tapping into OVP electoral bases was the FPO splinter party, the Liberal Forum, which garnered five percent of the Nationalrat seats in 1995. The SPO, however, continued to see the FPO as unfit to govern, and retained the OVP as the junior partner in the government coalition.

1999 shook the Austrian political scene to its very core. To start, the SPO had its worst electoral showing in the post-war era, losing twenty-five percent of its seats. And, while the People's Party also continued to slide, the radical-right FPO actually equaled the OVP in electoral support. After negotiations between the OVP and SPO failed to form a governing coalition, one was eventually formed between the OVP and FPO, relegating the SPO, still the nation's largest party, to opposition status for the first time in over thirty years.

When the FPO was founded in 1947, it was in the words of one scholar, "a natural home for ex-Nazis (Sully, 1990: 63)." By the time Haider took power in 1986, this was no longer the case. However, those who now make up the party, while too young to be former Nazis, represent ideas that, to many, are just as vulgar. The FPO holds a strong anti-immigrant stance, under the banner, "Austrians First (Socialist Outlook," In addition to their allegedly xenophobic policies, the FPO had taken a tremendous amount of heat for the statements made by party head Jorg Haider. Often cited are his reference in an address of former SS officers, describing them as decent people, as well as his praise for Nazi employment policies.

As a result of the international stigma placed upon Jorg Haider and his Freedom Party, their inclusion in the government brought an avalanche of outcries form the International Community. The state of Israel recalled its ambassador and the European Union issued sanctions. Haider, while never holding a post in the government, was suspected to be calling the shots from behind-the-scenes. Consequently, Haider resigned his leadership of the FPO early in 2000. Nevertheless, fourteen years after the election of Kurt Waldheim, Austria has reentered a state of international isolation.

According to opinion polls taken in 2000, the FPO has lost some support, while the Greens have nearly doubled their share of the electorate to sixteen to eighteen percent (Socialist Outlook, Assuming support for the Liberal Forum has remained relatively constant, then the total share of these once minor parties comes to roughly twenty percent. This functioning multi-party environment is a far cry from the two and a half party system of the Austria of old.

Original Parties from 1950-1962, still continuing to 2000

101 People's Party (OVP). While once the dominant force in Austrian politics, the OVP has seen tremendous decline in recent years. Since gaining a majority in the Nationalrat in 1966, the People's Party, has lost seats in nearly every election since. However, today, in coalition with the Freedom party, the OVP retains the Chancellorship.

102 Socialist Party (SPO). The SPO has in many ways followed a similar pattern to the OVP. Ever since losing their absolute majority in the early 1980s, the SPO has undergone a steady decline in parliamentary representation. In fact, in 1999, the Social Democrats, as they are also known, lost twenty-five percent of their seats in the Nationalrat. 1999 marked the first time in nearly thirty years that the SPO was not a member of the governing coalition.

103 Freedom Party (FPO). This radical right, populist party has attracted international attention since its meteoric rise to power in 1999. Led by a young and charismatic, Jorg Haider, the FPO was able to shed the title of "irresponsible opposition (Fitzmaurice, 1990: 107)" and formed a right-of-center governing coalition with the People's party. Although recent opinion polls show the FPO to have lost several points (Socialist Outlook, their anti-immigrant policies, and other right wing ideals continue to threaten the OVP on its right flank.

Parties formed before 1962 but not included in original study

104 Communist Party. The Austrian Communist party has not been a significant political player since 1958, when they last held seats in the lower house of parliament. Voters continued to lend them a very modest amount of support through the 1986 elections, when they ceased to receive votes.

New Parties formed after 1962, and continuing to 2000

105 Green Alternative List (GAL). The Austrian Green movement began in the early 1980s as a grass-roots protest movement focused on nuclear power plants (Fitzmaurice, 1990: 110). While the GAL officially unified with the more-conservative United Greens of Austria in 1986, both parties have continued to run separate lists of candidates in certain elections (Fitzmaurice, 1990: 91). However, only the Green Alternatives have been able to gain seats in the Nationalrat.

106 Liberal Forum. In 1993, Heide Schmidt of the Freedom Party, left to form this splinter party. Since 1995, the Liberal Forum appears to have taken a small amount of electoral support from the OVP and FPO.


Fitzmaurice, John. Austrian Politics and Society Today (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990).

Janda, Kenneth. Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey. New York: Free Press, 1980.

Keesing's Record of World Events. Vol. . (1966).

Keesing's Record of World Events. Vol. . (1971).

Keesing's Record of World Events. Vol. . (1975).

Schultz, Walter. Who let in Jorg Haider? Socialist Outlook. (August 10, 2000).

Sully, Melanie A. A Contemporary History of Austria (London: Routledge, 1990). 

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000