Austria Table of Contents

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 ÖVP. Further, economic growth was occurring primarily in the service sector, not in heavy industry or manufacturing, the traditional base of the SPÖ. 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 SPÖ proved more adept at redefining itself in this new era.

Kreisky's personal popularity played a large part in the success of the SPÖ, 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 SPÖ 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 SPÖ 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 ÖVP found it difficult to enunciate a distinct political identity because Kreisky so successfully occupied the middle ground.

In the election of 1970, the SPÖ emerged as the largest party but lacked a parliamentary majority. An attempt to revive the grand coalition failed. And Kreisky could not lure the FPÖ into a coalition. But the FPÖ did agree to cooperate in passing the SPÖ 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 SPÖ 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 VPÖ won only eighty seats and 43 percent of the vote. The FPÖ 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 SPÖ increased its share of the vote to 51 percent and won ninety-five seats. The ÖVP declined to just below 42 percent and won only seventy-seven seats. The FPÖ 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 Kirchschläger. Although he was not a member of the SPÖ, Kirchschläger, 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress