Government and Politics

Austria Table of Contents

AUSTRIA'S POLITICAL SYSTEM has been a model of stability since democracy was restored in 1945. In contrast to the interwar period, when domestic political rivalries and foreign intervention brought the system of government set out by the constitution of 1920 to a standstill, after World War II this reestablished parliamentary democracy functioned smoothly in what came to be termed the Second Republic.

For most of the postwar period, Austrian politics appeared unique in many respects to outside observers. Between 1945 and 1966, the country was ruled by the so-called grand coalition of the two major parties, the Austrian People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei--ÖVP) and the Socialist Party of Austria (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs--SPÖ). (In 1991 the name of the latter party was changed to the Social Democratic Party of Austria [Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs--SPÖ].) This arrangement appealed to Austria's politicians and people mainly because it symbolized the reconciliation between social groups that had fought a brief civil war before the absorption (Anschluss) of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. The coregency of the ÖVP and SPÖ led to the systematic dividing of political offices and civil service posts, known in Austria as Proporz. Also benefiting from this arrangement were key economic and professional organizations that were aligned with the two major parties.

At times, Austria's political system seemed impervious to change, but by the middle of the 1980s, it had become clear that far-reaching social and economic trends were beginning to affect the country's politics. The dominance of the ÖVP and SPÖ was challenged by the reemergence of the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs--FPÖ), led by Jörg Haider, a young right-wing populist who appealed to German nationalist sentiment. After the FPÖ's short-lived coalition with the SPÖ between 1983 and 1986, it continued to attract increasing numbers of voters. In the national election of 1990, the FPÖ won 16.6 percent of the vote, establishing itself as a new power in the Nationalrat. In early 1993, however, some members of the FPÖ withdrew from it and formed their own party, The Liberal Forum (Das Liberale Forum), a potential threat to Haider's political future. Concern over environmental issues has also affected the Austrian political process, as evidenced by the entry of Green political parties into parliament in 1986. Previous patterns of government, which revolved almost exclusively around reaching agreement between the ÖVP and the SPÖ, were replaced by a more contentious, freewheeling atmosphere where more voices are heard.

While the political process underwent gradual but distinct changes, a variety of scandals during the 1980s brought Austria to the world's attention. The best-known involved Kurt Waldheim, elected president in 1986. Shortly after his election, a sharp international controversy erupted over whether he had been involved in Nazi atrocities in Yugoslavia during World War II. Although a thorough investigation found no evidence that Waldheim had participated in any atrocities, his method of handling the affair disappointed many Austrians and foreign observers. The strong emotions unleashed inside Austria by this matter showed that the older generation is still reluctant to discuss the country's role in the Nazi era.

Major changes in Austria's political landscape opened prospects of a new basis for its foreign policy. The bedrock of Austrian diplomacy in the postwar period has been its commitment to permanent neutrality. In order to achieve the removal of Soviet occupying forces, the Austrian government in 1955 pledged never to join a military alliance or to permit the stationing of foreign troops on its soil. Thereafter, Austria pursued a policy of active neutrality, which included participation in numerous United Nations peacekeeping operations. During the Cold War period, Austria was a consistent advocate of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union.

By the late 1980s, a growing number of politicians had concluded that the country should examine closely the question of whether or not to join the European Community. After a prolonged debate over the merits of membership, the Austrian government submitted a formal entry application in the summer of 1989. As of late 1993, a substantial number of Austrian citizens still had serious reservations about joining the organization, which as of November 1993 came to be known as the European Union. Membership would have to be approved in a popular referendum. Whatever the outcome of the vote, the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have raised the question of whether neutrality should--or could--remain the guiding principle of Austrian foreign policy.


For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Austria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress