The Social Democratic Party of Austria

Austria Table of Contents

The Social Democratic Party of Austria (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs--SPÖ), until 1991 known as the Socialist Party of Austria (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs--SPÖ), has its roots in the original Social Democratic Workers' Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei--SDAP), founded in 1889 by Viktor Adler, a young doctor. The SDAP supported revisionist Marxism and the use of democratic methods to establish workingclass rule in a democratic government. The SDAP was responsible for pushing through universal voting rights for men in 1905 and for extending the same for women in 1919. From 1934 to 1945, during the regimes of Engelbert Dollfuss (1932-34) and Kurt von Schuschnigg (1934-38) and the takeover by the Nazis, the SDAP was outlawed. In 1945 it was reconstituted as the Socialist Party of Austria. In 1991 the party readopted the designation "Social Democratic."

Moderates such as Karl Renner and Adolf Schärf, each of whom eventually served as president of the Second Republic, led the postwar party. Their primary interests lay in increasing SPÖ power in the coalition government rather than in fostering Marxism. Between 1945 and 1957, the party supported democratic practices and intraparty cooperation, programs for higher wages and lower food prices, and increased government spending on social programs.

The election of Bruno Pittermann as party chairman in 1957 marked the beginning of major policy changes. The party had a strong following among industrial workers, but party officials wanted to expand SPÖ membership to the middle class and whitecollar workers and to soften the party's anticlerical position in order to become acceptable to Roman Catholics. These changes were expressed in a new party program adopted in 1958. The program claimed that the SPÖ was "the party of all those who work for a living," and it stated the party's opposition to communism and fascism.

The late 1960s brought more changes in party doctrine. A new economic program in 1967 constituted a shift from concern for the distribution of wealth to concern for economic growth, including increasing foreign investment in Austria. Cultural and social reforms were demanded, and emphasis was placed on attending to the needs of young people. In line with its appeal to youth, the party supported a plan to shorten the term of military service.

Under Bruno Kreisky, who became chairman of the SPÖ in 1967, the party continued its move toward the center of the ideological spectrum. Although party platforms continued to refer to the classless society as an ideal, the SPÖ was careful to distinguish its brand of socialism from the centralized, inefficient version of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The party program of 1978 stressed the four principles of freedom, equality, justice, and solidarity. Central to the SPÖ's philosophy was a guarantee for all Austrians of freedom from fear, hunger, exploitation, and unemployment. The freedom to pursue wealth had to be balanced by the government's guarantee of equal opportunity and social justice.

Under Kreisky the SPÖ triumphed at the polls in 1970, 1971, 1975, and 1979, and between 1971 and 1983 the party enjoyed an absolute majority in parliament. The Kreisky governments laid great emphasis on improving the social welfare system and achieving full employment. The Kreisky era also featured the flourishing of the technocrats--SPÖ politicians successful in business and banking whose lavish life-styles seemed incongruous in a party supposed to represent the interests of labor.

In the parliamentary election of 1983, the SPÖ lost its absolute majority, and Kreisky decided to retire from politics rather than preside over a coalition government. Fred Sinowatz, Kreisky's minister for education, was chosen as chancellor in a coalition government with the FPÖ. The Sinowatz era, from 1983 to 1986, proved to be a short interregnum and was not distinguished by any great achievements.

Franz Vranitzky, born in 1937, became chancellor in June 1986 when Sinowatz resigned after the SPÖ lost the presidential election to Kurt Waldheim. Vranitzky replaced Sinowatz as party chairman in May 1988, becoming the first person from a workingclass background to hold this position. Despite his working-class heritage, Vranitzky had had a successful career in banking before entering politics.

Under Vranitzky the SPÖ moved to restore its image among rank-and-file members by improving its methods of intraparty communication. Computers and direct mail technology were used to gauge the opinions of members in the provinces, and efforts were made to improve recruiting techniques by means of recreational groups. In the area of government policy, Vranitzky stressed that limits on state activity were necessary, although he noted that health care and education were fields where market forces had to be regulated.

Vranitzky displayed a more open attitude toward the question of privatizing government industries than Kreisky had. To a large extent, changes in this area were inevitable because of large losses in the state industrial sector that came to light in 1985. Vranitzky embraced the principle that privatization should be pursued if it would lead to greater operational efficiency. The press dubbed Vranitzky's approach "pinstripe socialism." The policy has proven to be a responsible one and has been fairly popular with Austrians.

In 1984 the SPÖ launched a program called Perspectives '90, designed to promote intraparty discussion on current issues. A major aim of the leadership was to show that the party was eager to listen to grass-roots concerns. A series of nationwide debates eventually led to the issuance of a draft document in 1986 that incorporated the views of party members on issues such as the environment, controls on the development of technology, and democratization of society. Events that had embarrassed the party, such as the conflict over the Hainburg power plant in 1984 and Minister for Defense Friedhelm Frischenschläger's reception of Walter Reder in 1985, were also discussed.

An estimated 30,000 party members participated in the Perspectives '90 meetings, which took place in 1,000 local groups. The success of this project led the SPÖ to stage the Congress for the Future in Vienna in the summer of 1987, where 400 of the party's top leaders and intellectual luminaries discussed the outlook for social democracy. It was agreed that the SPÖ needed to formulate an alternative to the neoconservatism of the 1980s that would allow for greater codetermination in the workplace but also avoid the pitfalls of too much state control. After the success of this conference, the SPÖ began planning another that would produce a Social Democratic Manifesto for the Year 2000.

Membership in the SPÖ is direct (unlike the ÖVP, where a person joins an organization affiliated with the party). SPÖ's membership grew rapidly in the postwar period--from 360,000 members in 1946 to its peak of nearly 720,000 members in 1979. With the loosening of the grip of the Lager on Austrian society, SPÖ's membership has declined slightly. In the early 1990s, it was estimated at 700,000.

Party organization remained centralized as of the early 1990s. The main link between rank-and-file members and party leaders are the activists known as Vertrauenspersonen, who personally collect annual membership dues. At the local level, the SPÖ is represented by almost 4,000 groups in villages and towns. Every two years, the SPÖ holds a federal conference that elects the party executive, which has sixty-five members. Because of the executive's unwieldy size, a smaller group, known as the presidium, is selected from it and actually conducts most party business.

Delegates to the federal conference are drawn from the various suborganizations of the party. The party has two youth organizations, the Young Generation (Junge Generation--JG) and the Socialist Youth of Austria (Sozialistische Jugend Österreichs --SJÖ). The Group of Socialist Trade Unionists (Fraktion Sozialistischer Gewerkschaftler--FSG) sends fifty-two delegates to the conference. There is also a Women's Committee, which has representatives from each province. Over the years, women have consistently made up one-third of SPÖ's membership. In 1985 the federal conference passed an amendment providing for greater representation of women in the party and larger numbers of female candidates. Progress toward this goal has been slow, however, and in 1989 only eleven of the SPÖ's deputies in the Nationalrat were female.

SPÖ candidates for parliamentary elections are determined by the Party Council, whose members come from the nine provincial party organizations. The party executive and the heads of the nine provincial parties have an input into the selection process. Roughly one-fifth of the places are reserved for high-ranking party officials, whose presence in the Nationalrat is considered imperative.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress