History of Austria


Electoral Politics in the Kreisky Era

As the Austrian economy developed in the 1950s and 1960s, the nature of the electorate slowly shifted. The declining economic importance of agriculture and forestry undermined the rural base of the ÍVP. Further, economic growth was occurring primarily in the service sector, not in heavy industry or manufacturing, the traditional base of the SPÍ. By 1970 service-sector employees constituted just under 40 percent of the working population, and both parties sought to position themselves in the middle of the political spectrum in order to attract these voters. Under the leadership of Bruno Kreisky, the SPÍ proved more adept at redefining itself in this new era.

Kreisky's personal popularity played a large part in the success of the SPÍ, and the party capitalized on this by campaigning on slogans like "Kreisky--who else?" and "Austria needs Kreisky." Although Kreisky came from a wealthy Viennese Jewish family, he declared himself an agnostic. Kreisky had been imprisoned in the mid- and late 1930s for political activity, but the Nazi regime eventually allowed him to emigrate to Sweden, where he became acquainted with Swedish socialism and met Willy Brandt, the future leader of the German Social Democrats. Kreisky returned to Austria after the war and by the early 1950s was working in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and becoming active in party politics.

Kreisky was deeply involved in efforts to broaden SPÍ appeal in the 1950s. As chancellor, he continued to move the party toward the political center, reaching out toward swing voters and Roman Catholic and rural constituencies. Indicative of SPÍ reconciliation with the mainstream of Austrian culture and history was campaign literature in 1979 that featured Kreisky sitting beneath a portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph. As the differences between the two major political parties lessened, the ÍVP found it difficult to enunciate a distinct political identity because Kreisky so successfully occupied the middle ground.

In the election of 1970, the SPÍ emerged as the largest party but lacked a parliamentary majority. An attempt to revive the grand coalition failed. And Kreisky could not lure the FPÍ into a coalition. But the FPÍ did agree to cooperate in passing the SPÍ budget in exchange for electoral reform. Kreisky thus formed a minority government in 1970, and another election was held under a new electoral law in October 1971.

The electoral reform raised the number of seats in the Nationalrat from 165 to 183 and increased the degree of proportionality between a party's percentage of the popular vote and its parliamentary seats, thus boosting the fortunes of small parties. The SPÍ emerged from the election with an absolute majority, winning a bare 50 percent of the vote and ninety-three seats in the enlarged Nationalrat. The VPÍ won only eighty seats and 43 percent of the vote. The FPÍ won 5.5 percent of the vote, the same as in 1970, and held ten seats.

The election of 1975 repeated the 1971 results. But in 1979, the SPÍ increased its share of the vote to 51 percent and won ninety-five seats. The ÍVP declined to just below 42 percent and won only seventy-seven seats. The FPÍ improved its performance slightly, getting 6 percent of the vote and taking eleven seats.

While the electorate had opted for a Socialist chancellor, it also continued to elect a Socialist or Socialist-backed presidential candidate throughout the Kreisky era. Six months before the 1970 parliamentary election, Jonas won reelection, defeating Kurt Waldheim. Jonas died in 1974 and was succeeded by Kreisky's foreign minister, Rudolf Kirchschlńger. Although he was not a member of the SPÍ, Kirchschlńger, a practicing Catholic and a political independent, was a Kreisky associate, having been brought into Kreisky's cabinet in 1970. His reelection bid was unopposed in 1980.

Domestic Issues

Kreisky's style and tone struck a chord with the Austrian electorate, and his personal popularity was enhanced by the country's economic prosperity in the 1970s. His legislative and economic program was built on the existing political consensus and ratified by the social partners. Many measures continued to pass unanimously in the Nationalrat. Employee benefits were expanded, the workweek was cut to forty hours, and legislation providing for equality for women was passed. The period of mandatory military service was cut from nine months to six months. Three issues, however, divided the country: abortion, nuclear power and environmental damage, and ethnic minority rights.

In 1973 the SPÍ passed a law over the opposition of the ÍVP and the FPÍ that legalized abortion on demand during the first trimester. Popular opposition backed by the Roman Catholic Church manifested itself in a petition drive that helped bring the issue before parliament again in the spring of 1976. The law, however, was upheld.

In the early 1970s, the international energy crisis triggered by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil cartel and the Arab oil embargo exposed Austria's vulnerability to imported energy supplies. To reduce this vulnerability, Kreisky continued the construction of a nuclear power plant at Zwentendorf, sixty kilometers from Vienna, and planned the construction of three other plants. As the Zwentendorf facility neared completion in the late 1970s, however, the public expressed growing concern about the safety of nuclear power. The SPÍ did not want to alienate the environmental movement and its bloc of voters, but it also needed to satisfy its trade union constituency, which favored the project. The issue was settled by means of a national referendum on November 5, 1978. Despite Kreisky's vigorous campaign for the plant, the electorate narrowly rejected opening the plant.

Seeking to implement provisions in the 1955 State Treaty regarding the rights of the country's Croat and Slovene minority communities, parliament enacted a law in 1972 to erect duallanguage signs wherever the minority population of a locality was at least 20 percent. Such signs were placed in some 200 of the 2,900 towns and villages in Carinthia. With the support of local officials and police, however, the German-speaking population reacted violently and ripped the signs down, reflecting lingering hostility provoked by Yugoslav efforts to annex the province after World War II. In an effort to resolve the matter, the government took a census in 1976 to determine Carinthia's ethnic make-up. Because the Slovene population had declined greatly since 1914, when it accounted for 25 percent of the total populace, Slovene leaders called for a boycott of the census, and the results were not considered reliable. Dual-language signs were erected in 1977 where the local minority population was believed to be over 25 percent.

Foreign Policy

Under Kreisky's leadership, Austria sought to play an active role in international politics in the 1970s, particularly through the UN. Reflecting the acceptance of Austrian neutrality, Waldheim, the unsuccessful conservative presidential candidate in 1970, was elected UN secretary general in 1971 and reelected to that post in 1976. Austria continued to cast itself as a bridge between East and West, and Vienna was the site for some early rounds of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kreisky became personally involved in issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite general support for maintenance of Israeli security, he criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. In 1980 Austria gave de facto recognition to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by accepting an accredited agent of the PLO in Vienna. Throughout the 1970s, however, Austria was also a transit point for Jews leaving the Soviet Union for destinations in Israel and the West.

Austria established a more favorable trading relationship with the EEC in 1972, but the EEC continued to move toward still fuller economic and political integration in Western Europe. Although Kreisky pointed to the possibility of Austria's adopting legislation on its own in coordination with these developments, he stressed that Austria's neutrality would continue to prevent full membership in the EEC unless it were expanded to include all of Europe.

End of the Kreisky Era

During Kreisky's tenure as chancellor, Austria enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, but by the time the April 1983 election approached, the SPÍ had few fresh ideas with which to attract critical swing voters. Its image also suffered from various political and financial scandals. Its proposal for a tax hike aimed at upper-income Austrians to finance job creation was countered by the ÍVP with promises of no new taxes and more careful use of existing government tax revenues. Although the ÍVP failed to unseat the SPÍ as the largest party in the Nationalrat, the ÍVP benefited from a significant shift in voter sentiment, and the SPÍ lost its majority, winning ninety seats, which was five seats fewer than in 1979. The ÍVP gained four seats for a total of eighty-one. The FPÍ won an additional seat, for a total of twelve, despite a decline in its share of the vote. Two "green" parties, the United Greens of Austria (Vereinigte GrŘne Ísterreichs--VGÍ) and the Alternative List of Austria (Alternative Liste Ísterreichs--ALÍ), sought to rally voters on environmental issues. Together they took about 3.3 percent of the vote but won no parliamentary seats.

Kreisky had campaigned strongly for an absolute majority and resigned rather than lead a coalition government. His minister of education, Fred Sinowatz, became chancellor in 1983, heading an SPÍ-FPÍ coalition. Kreisky's departure marked a major turning point in Austria's postwar history, and the Sinowatz government was to be a transitional phase into the contemporary era.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress