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Austria - Political Parties

Currently there are more than 800 registered political parties in Austria. Six political parties are currently represented in the Austrian Parliament: the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO); the Austrian Peoples Party (OVP); the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO); the Greens; the Team Stronach; the neos. the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO) lost all its seats in the 2013 election. The Liberal Forum (LIF), which split from the Freedom Party (FPO) after its rightward lurch in the 1990s, was represented in parliament until 1999, when it failed to clear the 4% hurdle to enter the legislature. The image of political parties and politicians is currently at a record low.

The existence of a large number of different political parties is a hallmark of democracy, and their importance is due to the role they play in the political decision-making process. The various activities of political parties in the fields of organisation, information, public relations etc. require a committed staff and cost large amounts of money. In fact, donations and membership fees will not be sufficient to cover costs. In order to prevent political parties from becoming dependent on investors and lobbies, they are subsidised from tax revenue.

The minimum number of Members required to form a parliamentary group is five. In theory it is also possible for Members from different campaigning parties to form a parliamentary group, but only with the approval of a majority of National Council. The President of the National Council has to be informed without delay whenever a parliamentary group is formed and whenever any changes occur in its composition. The National Council has 183 Members elected for a legislative period of five years. Jointly with the Federal Council it represents the legislative power at federal level. The free mandate is a basic principle of representative democracies. This means that Members are not bound by any directives in the exercise of their duties.

The founding period of today's political parties goes back to the second half of the 19th century. In 1873 only six percent of the entire population living in the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy were entitled to vote in the elections for the House of Representatives of the Imperial Assembly. All others, the equivalent of 94 percent of the population, were excluded from the political decision-making process and had to join various political movements evolving at the time to make their voices heard. The new political parties shared the fight against an elective franchise excluding all but a few; they provided a party organisation and political programmes. It eventually took until the First Republic for the universal, equal, direct and secret right to vote for both women and men to be introduced and for general elections to be held for the first time.

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 Catholic-conservative, 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. 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 SPO were the Group of Socialist Trade Unionists (Fraktion Sozialistischer Gewerkschaftler--FSG), the Free Business Association of Austria (Freier Wirtschaftsverband Osterreichs--FWB), and the SPO Farmers (SPO-Bauern). In the Catholic-conservative camp, the chief organizations of the OVP were the League of Austrian Workers and Salaried Employees (Osterreichischer Arbeiter- und Angestelltenbund--OAAB), the League of Austrian Business (Osterreichischer Wirtschaftsbund-- OWB), and the League of Austrian Farmers (Osterreichischer Bauernbund--OBB). The German-nationalist camp, which is represented by the FPO, 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 OVP dominates the Chamber of Agriculture through the OAAB and the Chamber of Commerce through the OWB. The SPO 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 SPO and OVP 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 OVP and the SPO, 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 SPO and OVP enclaves.

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 OVP and SPO 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 FPO, which doubled its vote. Moreover, for the first time ever, members of the Green political movement entered parliament.

The trend away from the dominance of the Lager system continued in the next parliamentary election in 1990, but this time it was the OVP 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 FPO 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 OVP and SPO 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 OVP as a major party was placed in doubt. Whereas in the 1986 election the OVP received only 88,000 fewer votes than the SPO, in 1990 the difference ballooned to more than 500,000. Under its colorful leader, Joerg Haider, the FPO was changing the Austrian party system from one dominated by two parties to one with multiparty possibilities.

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