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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 12:51–59.


The Current Political Crisis in Austria and the International Response


Has the more than fifty years’ long era of political stability really ended. Many internal and external observers asked over the last two weeks. Why and how can a democratic changeover of a governmental power cause such a big stir? – “The Financial Times” cited on February 11, 2000, “a serious looking veterinary science student” in Vienna: “We need to start to talk about things. Before, there were a lot of political parties that appropriated part of the Freedom party’s program. It was all very unclear. Now people have to say clearly what they want. There’s this kind of polarizations (of opinions) – which is in some ways bad, in other ways not.”

Let me raise four blunt questions:

1. What happened in the parliamentary elections on October 3, 1999?

2. Why did the formation of government between the Social Democratic Party and the People’s Party fail, while the formation of a government between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party was achieved?

3. What is the historical background of Haider’s words that ignited a diplomatic crisis?

4. Why does Austria face isolation from the European Union?


1. What happened in the parliamentary elections on October 3, 1999?

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) with Federal Chancellor Viktor Klima lost the elections, dropped from 38% to 33% of all votes, and lost 6 parliamentary seats; the People’s Party (ÖVP) with Vice Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel lost 1.4% of all votes, but held its 52 seats; while the Freedom Party (FPÖ) of Jörg Haider won 5%, received 415 votes more than the People’s Party and received for their 27% 52 seats as well. The Greens with Alexander van der Bellen won 2.6% and a plus of 5 seats (now 14), while the Liberals with Heide Schmidt lost with only 3.6% all of its 10 seats.

The SPÖ suffered its heaviest losses in its workers strongholds in Vienna, Styria (e.g. Kapfenberg), and Carinthia (for example Villach), as well as in the ÖVP strongholds in Tyrol and Vorarlberg. The ÖVP lost in Vienna, Styria, and Carinthia, but won in Tyrol and Vorarlberg. Haider’s FPÖ won the most votes in Vienna, Styria, Carinthia, and Salzburg, especially in the province capitals Graz, Klagenfurt, Salzburg, Innsbruck, and Bregenz. The Greens won above all in Vienna. That means that Haider won the votes of as many workers, peasants, and lower middle class employees as in the voters group under 30 years of age. Although I couldn’t find any really good analyses – the media analyses with exit polls and opinion polls are made without any social historical election research (!) – I suggest the following points for the discussion:

a) Although the socio-economic situation in Austria in 1999 was the best in the whole 20th century, dissatisfaction increased among the workers, the peasants, and the Youth. The workers began to fear the pressure of competition from foreign workers, coming to Austria from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. The employers used more and cheaper foreign workers. The peasants criticized EU agrarian policy, lowering the prices for most agrarian products. And youth, especially the well-educated began to feel three “saving packages” between 1996 and 1998 to fulfil the EU budget criteria – there were student demonstrations in 1996 (!) – that limited their professional chances in the civil service and in many state, provincial and community institutions.

b) Haider won the elections through his criticism of the Great Coalition between the “Reds” and the “Blacks”, of the central bureaucracy in Vienna, of the spheres of influence of the Trade Unions and the Economic Chamber, and the monopoly of state television. Although there were fundamental changes in the governments in 1966 (to an ÖVP-government), in 1970 (to a SPÖ-government), in 1983 (to a SPÖ–FPÖ coalition), and in 1987 (to a SPÖ-ÖVP coalition), there existed in 1999 an increasing feeling for the need of change. But why a change to Haider’s Freedom Party? Only as a sign of protest? Are all the voters for Haider, the Greens, and the Liberals protest voters? – Of course, not. The main reason why support for Haider has jumped from 5% before the elections in 1986 to 27% in 1999 was – as “The Economist” on February 12, 2000, pointed out – not his unacceptable comments suggesting sympathy for Hitler and the Nazis and his ugly generalizations about immigrants, but the Austrians’ growing dislike of a grubby system known as “Proporz”, under which the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats have shared power and patronage since World War II. “Most top jobs in state business and the public service, including schools and hospitals, are allocated by Proporz; even janitors and committees selecting juries are affected. Long before immigration became controversial, Mr. Haider’s main purpose was to break up what had become a corrupt duopoly.” His Freedom Party’s manifesto is, in fact, a rather vague document, promising the promotion of “Christian family values” (while the historical attitude of the FPÖ was anti-Catholic), stiffer sentences for criminals, lower taxes, and accession to NATO.


2. Why did the formation of a SPÖ/ÖVP government fail, while the establishment of an ÖVP/FPÖ government was achieved?

The Austrian Federal President, Thomas Klestil, wanted a “government on the broadest possible basis” and meant a renewal of the SPÖ/ÖVP coalition. But the talks and the negotiations failed on January 21, 2000, because the ÖVP insisted upon having a “non-party-expert” as minister of finance, instead of an SPÖ minister, and having the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (closely affiliated with the SPÖ) sign the coalition agreement. The reason for the ÖVP demands was the party’s mistrust of the last SPÖ finance minister. He did not speak about the considerable deficit problem of Austria in 2000 which was before the elections of October 3rd, 1999 related to the Euro “convergence criteria”. On the other hand, six weeks after the elections, the finance minister cut back all discretionary spending by 20%, (US $150 million) in the research budget. Behind the break between the SPÖ and ÖVP there emerged an increasing mistrust between Klima and Schüssel and divergent political attitudes with regard to the privatization of state enterprises, the European security system, and “family policy”. The SPÖ and the trade unionists, who were participating in the negotiations, were not willing to compromise on these issues, while the ÖVP insisted on new regulations. Therefore, discussions for a new coalition agreement collapsed.

An ÖVP–FPÖ coalition was in any case uncertain, because the ÖVP demanded clear commitments for the EU, to the Euro, and for the EU-enlargement. (You may recall that the former ÖVP-chairman Alois Mock was the driving force to connect Austria with the EU, and that the personal and political record of the new Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel as a “European politician” and of the ÖVP as a “European party” are impeccable.) Over and above the EU question, there are existing historical and mental gaps between the elder members of both parties who lived in the Nazi period and the denazification after World II, and the attitudes towards the Catholic Church (a large percentage of the Lutherans are voters for the FPÖ), and members of the organizations for craftsmen and peasants. Nevertheless, the socio-cultural differences between both party members were and are more essential in Vienna than in all the other provinces, because outside Vienna the FPÖ was the smaller middle-class party for a long time.

When Haider made his first offer to Schüssel via television in late October 1999, it began a change in the preference of the lower ÖVP functionaries and a pressure on the party establishment. In addition, ÖVP and FPÖ have at this moment (this was not the case in 1970, when Chancellor Bruno Kreisky needed the FPÖ /!/) more common political goals: family policy, security policy, privatization, school policy etc. In Carinthia, Haider governed in 1989–1991, then was voted out in the regional parliament by the SPÖ and the ÖVP because of his remark in a debate: “In the Third Reich they had an ‘orderly’ employment policy.” He won the last election in spring 1999 and returned as governor. He has not brought in any patently xenophobic laws and his recent cost-cutting budget was approved by the Social Democrats. But his policy toward Slovenia is double-edged: on the one hand, he supports close economic relations and agrees with the Carinthian Slovenes for separate schools for Slovene-speaking children; on the other hand he is – together with the ÖVP-led Styrian government – criticizing the Slovene government because of the allegedly faulty security system in the Slovenian-Croatian nuclear power station at Krshko in the Sava valley and the negative attitude toward the small German-Austrian minority.


3. What is the historical background of Haider’s most infamous statements related to Hitler and the Nazi rule?

In June 1991, Haider praised the “orderly employment policy” of the Third Reich. In February 1995, Haider referred to “the punishment camps of National Socialism”, implying that concentration camp inmates had been guilty of crimes. In September 1995, Haider spoke to WW II veterans including former members of the Waffen SS and praised them for having “remained true to their convictions until today”.

Coupled with his own family background as the child of former NSDAP members, all of these statements point to an infection by National Socialism. And some of the founders of the Freedom Party in 1958 were former Nazi members and SS officers; but the main stream of the FPÖ was national-liberal that meant Pan-German, anti-Catholic, and standing for a liberal economic and judicial policy. Like the majority of the Austrians they accepted the one-sided thesis that Austria was the first victim of Hitler’s expansionist policy. The political generation of the chancellors Figl, Raab, and Kreisky supported this general interpretation. This umbrella prevented a clear sense of responsibility for many wicked deeds of Austrians in the Nazi period.

Unfortunately, Austrian media policy, Austrian education policy, and even Austrian historiography supported the lack of knowledge on the Nazi period and the Second World War in some direct and indirect ways:

a) Austrian historiography focused more on the annexation of Austria in 1938, the Nazi administration in Austria, the Austrian politicians and intellectuals in Nazi concentration camps, the deportation of the Viennese Jews to Auschwitz and the Holocaust, the emigration groups, the resistance groups of the Communists, the Socialists, and the Catholics, the allied bombing raids against Austrian cities since August 1943, the prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, and the end of WWII in Austria with the occupation of the country. Therefore, we must state, that important parts of the engagements of Austrians – not of the Austrian state (!) – in the Nazi rule and in WWII were not sufficiently considered, at the universities, or in the high schools and colleges. Too many Austrians played a leading role in the Nazi Party, in the SS and the Wehrmacht, above all 7 Gauleiter, 9 high ranking SS and police leaders, and 240 Wehrmacht generals. Austrian soldiers were especially engaged in Poland, Norway, Yugoslavia, and Greece, at the battle of Stalingrad and at the battle of Monte Cassino. Austrians commanded the Nazi occupational regime in the Netherlands (the last Chancellor Seyss-Inquart), in Slovenia, Serbia, Lublin, East Galicia, and Trieste.

b) Many political and scientific discussions in Austria since the 1970s coupled the National Socialist system with general problems of European Fascism. They were combining Hitler with Mussolini, Franco, Pavelic, Tiso, Antonescu, Szálasi and even with Pilsudski, Horthy, King Alexander, Dollfuß and Schuschnigg. The worst effect of the failure of differentiation was the underestimation of the special character of the Nazi rule and its crimes. Many Austrians – not only Haider – did not see the involvement of Austrians in these crimes. Unfortunately, the so-called Waldheim debate didn’t really bring improvement of knowledge. Even the international commission of historians in Vienna didn’t reach the scientific consensus of the World Congress of historians in Stuttgart in 1985, not to speak of “The Oxford Companion to the Second World War”, published in 1995. The Austrian historians should deepen knowledge more in the general aspects of WWII including the involvement of many Austrians. Then, infamous statements about the character of Nazi rule – as well as of Stalinist rule – would be excluded from entire Austrian society.


4. Why Austria faces isolation from the European Union?

On January 31, 2000, the European Union warned that its other 14 members would diplomatically isolate Austria if its anti-immigrant Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, enters a coalition government. The Portuguese prime minister and its minister for foreign affairs – Portugal holds now the European Union’s presidency – informed the Austrian authorities that the other members of the EU “will not promote or accept any bilateral official contacts at a political level” with any Austrian government that includes Haider’s party. Austrian candidates for posts in international organizations would find no support, it said, and Austrian ambassadors “will only be received at a technical level”. Prime Minister António Guterres justified the action in the Portuguese television: “We had to send a very clear signal that behaviour of a racist or xenophobic character will not be tolerated within the European Union.”

The Austrians were shocked. It was the first time the EU has issued such a warning to a member state. The threat of EU sanctions was made without diplomatically consulting Austria or prior warning the Austrian foreign minister Schüssel. This was intervention in the domestic affairs of a member state without any violation of EU conventions. The French foreign minister, Hubert in a radio interview, pointed out that a European country could be punished if it was found to have violated fundamental human rights. He also used the expression, “Europe is no longer in the 1930s”, meaning 1933 when the former Austrian Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. He forgot to mention that France sent an ultimatum to Austria in March 1931 – against the planned German-Austrian costums union –, and some ultimatums of Hitler against Austria in 1933, 1934, and in 1938. Therefore, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, always a judicious commentator on European affairs, observed in its February 1 edition (p. 3) that the “actual reasons for the excitement in Western Europe are the domestic political situations (in respective EU member states).”

Nevertheless, on February 3rd, Austria’s president announced that he would swear in a new government on the next day that includes Haider’s Freedom Party, because the logic of the Austrian democracy gave the Christian Democratic ÖVP and the right-wing FPÖ a majority of seats in the newly elected parliament. Before the appointment of the new government, President Klestil demanded of the two party chairmen, Schüssel and Haider to sign a Declaration committing Austria to “respect, tolerance and understanding for all human beings irrespective of their origin”. This preamble to the coalition agreement “amounted to a bizarre list of democratic commitments and mea culpas for the prospective government of a modern European state”, as the “New York Times” pointed out in its February 4th edition (p. A10). But a sentence in the Declaration, “Nationalism, dictatorship and intolerance brought war, xenophobia, bondage, racism and mass murder”, is not direct enough in deploring the specific forms of National Socialism and its crimes. Otherwise, the “New York Times” noticed that there is “a clash of opinions from Vienna to the Alps”: Interviews in the more conservative and patriotic Alpine regions and in the streets of the more liberal Vienna produced “a range of musings – not just about the diplomatic crisis, but also about Mr. Haider’s unpredictable personality and Austria’s complex self-image as the one-time seat of a vast empire later reduced to a Nazi state and now to an Alpine chalet on Western Europe’s frontier.”

On February 4, the EU governments began downgrading relations with Austria. Italy’s Foreign Minister, Lamberto Dini, warned before Italy’s Parliament that punishing Austria would be “risky”, and the former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who now heads now the European Commission, delicately expressed disagreement with European leaders. Prompted by memories of World War II, the socialist led coalition governments in Germany and France led the revolt against what they described as an intolerable xenophobia of Mr. Haider. Both countries had and continue to have some difficulties with racial disturbances and with far-right parties, especially in Southern France and in Eastern Germany. Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, a leading member of the Greens, explained the decision against Austria: “This is the first time an anti-European, xenophobic party with very dubious relationship toward the Nazi past has come into the government of a member state.” And Robin Cook, the British foreign minister, added in a TV-interview on February 11 (The News Hour with Jim Lehrer): “The Freedom Party is intolerable as a partner in a government of one of the EU-members. Haider praised Hitler, the SS, the employment policy of the Third Reich etc. We don’t want to return to the time of WWII!” Inquired by the interviewer, why the Austrian people cannot choose whom they want, Cook answered: “Oh yes, but we cannot accept an extremist right-wing party in the government!” – The interviewer forgot to ask, what happened with extremist left-wing parties in West European governments, where Communists have made excuses for Stalin’s crimes.

The United States briefly withdrew its ambassador and registered its distate for Haider’s party. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced that there should be no place in a European government for a party that “doesn’t distance itself clearly from the atrocities of the Nazi era and the politics of hate.” But Washington has not imposed any punitive measures on Austria, so Chancellor Schuessel could describe the reaction of the Clinton administration as “reasonable, moderate, positive and showing an understanding that what matters are deeds”. (New York Times, February 20, 2000, p. 4.)

Unfortunately, Israel reacted immediately and recalled its ambassador.

Fortunately, some Austria’s neighbours saw the problem created by the EU-overreaction. The conservative premier of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, explained the crucial point: “We have insulted the people of Austria.” (Herald International Tribune, February 19–20, 2000, p. 1) And Stoiber castigated the Social Democratic German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, for isolating Austria for including Haider’s Freedom Party in the coalition government, and sent a CSU-delegation to chancellor Schuessel in Vienna. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, also made it plain that he was unpleasantly disturbed by the 14 EU countries’ decision to put Austria’s new government into some kind of diplomatic quarantine. The entry of Mr. Haider’s party into Austria’s government was, he said with apparent approval, like “a stone being thrown into an intellectually and politically stagnant pond”. What the EU countries had done “forces us all to think harder than usual about the deeper meaning of democracy”, he said. Apart from his own prickly suspicion that the EU is too keen to dictate to small countries, Mr. Orbán also has pragmatic reasons for being soft on the Haiderites, because his conservative-liberal Fidesz party had and has to consider ultra-nationalist groups in the Hungarian parliament. Above all, Prime Minister Orbán cherishes Hungary’s historic links with Austria, and that Austria as the EU’s bridgehead into East-Central Europe, is far too important to annoy, whoever is running its government (The Economist, February 12, 2000, p. 50).

The main goals of the European Union are, or should be, peace and prosperity in the whole region. Therefore, the CDU-member of the Bundestag and chairman of its European Affairs Committee, Friedbert Pflüger, criticized the anti-Austrian decision of 14 EU-members: “It jeopardizes the process of European integration more than Mr. Haider could ever do” – he said. The EU preaches the need for dialogue with fundamentalist Iran, Communist China, the Libyan dictator Gadhafi, and Germany invited Fidel Castro to the Expo 2000 in Hannover. But the Austrian president and the Austrian chancellor will not be included on the guest list. “Could this decision, in which Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had a major say, be more grossly ill-judged?”, Pflüger is asking in the “Herald Tribune” from February 19–20. – Two weeks ago some European newspapers and political analysts spoke of “pure power politics”, and I would like to add, on pure party politics. Apparently, as some commentators pointed out, Austrian Social Democrats, including former chancellor Klima called friends around Europe and asked them to chime in with condemnations of Mr. Haider. – Pflüger outlined the risks for the EU:

a) The biggest danger lies in the revival of national ill will that his action has triggered. In Austria, Belgians, Germans, and French are told not to lecture others on questions of morality, given their own scandals at home; and Mr. Haider became a star of the European media within a few days.

b) In view of the intergovernmental EU conference on institutional reform, which began last week, the conference is expected to decide on replacing the principle of unanimity by extending qualified majority voting. Will the Austrians go along with this move under the current circumstances?

In this European framework the short-sighted EU decision is directed against Austria as a whole.

The government is the political speaker for a country; it can endanger European integration. Last week, in an interview with the left-liberal German weekly, “Die Zeit”, the German chancellor Schröder was asked if Germany was applying double standards to Austria because it is smaller than Italy, which didn’t face sanctions when the rightist National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini, joined the government of Silvio Berlusconi in 1994. Schröder replied: “No, the policies don’t exclude countries with larger populations and bigger economies. Europe would have to intervene if neo-Fascists were again sitting at the cabinet table. We cannot allow ourselves to lower the standards we have set.” Not only was Mr. Fini’s reaction “very dissatisfied”; the Italian foreign minister Lamberto Dini accused the German chancellor of a “superficial, unjustified and arbitrary judgement”. Evidently, a political and legal minefield has been opened. (Herald Tribune, February 19–20, 2000; New York Times, February 20, 2000).

Last year, reflecting on its ambitions, the European Union revised its treaties to allow sanctioning of member states, in which there are “serious and persistent” breaches of the principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights. Nobody has accused Austria of any such transgressions, let alone persistent ones. Therefore I agree with Pflüger’s question: “(Schüssel’s) government’s program is democratic and pro-European. Why don’t we Europeans take the new government at its word and seek to strengthen Mr. Schüssel’s position instead of taking preventative measures aimed at isolating Austria?”


The author is Professor of the East Europe Institute at the University of Vienna, Austria, member of the Academic Council of the Europa Institute, Budapest. This study was prepared for an American audience while he was a visiting Professor. (European Forum, Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, 24 February 2000.)