Forget the ongoing story here in the UK over how long our beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown can last (and he’s facing not just another by-election defeat but potential electoral meltdown), or the interminable campaign in the USA. The real psephological action is going to happen in Austria.
For two years Austria has been run by a Grand Coalition of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party. The Social Democrats (SPÖ) are politically where Labour was under John Smith in the post-1992 period before his unfortunate death. They have a new party leader and they’re offering all kinds of goodies like child-care access for all, increased pensions and lower taxes. The People’s Party (ÖVP) are more conservative (roughly where where Cameron’s Conservatives in the UK are at the moment, though a touch more ConservativeHome than the more progressive parts of the party). For example, one of their policies for the election is that all immigrants must take German lessons and prove some proficiency in the language before being accepted as citizens.
Part of the reason for these policies is the resurgence of the Right in Austria after quite a few years in the doldrums. The main right wing party is the FPÖ, the Freedom Party, who stand on a platform of liberal economics and an emphasis on Austria’s Catholic and cultural heritage. Although reviled by some for being perceived as anti-foreigner (they are opposed to deeper integration with the EU), in truth when you look at their party manifesto it isn’t very different to the platform of the Conservatives at the 2005 UK General Election.
The other right wing party is the BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria), which is led by Jörg Haider. Where does one start with this chap? Loved by some, loathed by others, he is the most famous Austrian politician outside of the country. Currently Governor of Carinthia, he once led the FPÖ to become the second largest party in the country, breaking the post-war system of Proporz that had split all jobs in the country between the ÖVP and SPÖ. However, the FPÖ split apart in an internal spat over direction, and Haider left with others to form the new party.
It would be wrong to assume that right-wing politics in Austria is neo-nazi. While there are certainly elements of that kind of thinking in the FPÖ and the BZÖ, the parties are best described as populist rather than national socialist. It’s also a mistake to assume that they are racist or anti-foreigner. A case in point – when a handyman’s family in my grandmother’s home town in central Austria (they were Bosnian refugees from Sarajevo) were threatened with deportation in the late 1990s, including a son who had been born in Austria and had the thickest Styrian accent, the only local politicians who supported him were the FPÖ who argued that since he had his own business and paid tax, he was contributing to Austrian society. The two main parties weren’t interested in helping.
And of course there’s the question over whether Haider is secretly gay [DE]…
There is the possibility that the two right wing parties may patch up their differences and get back together. If that were so then they could again be a powerful third alternative to the main two parties. Add to the mix the Greens and you have a healthy scrap about to happen.
What would I vote? Politically I’m somewhere between the ÖVP and the BZÖ (who increasingly come across as a much nicer version of the FPÖ), but realistically I’m in the ÖVP camp. While there are some aspects of the BZÖ program I’m quite comfortable with, there are other parts that I simply can’t support, from their opposition to a smoking ban (which of course is totally in line with their liberal credentials) and their complete mis-handling of their former leader being found guilty of perjury in an assault case. Sadly though, the ÖVP website is useless when it comes to providing banners etc….
And as to who will win? Well the current opinion polls are indicating that both the main parties will do badly and that the FPÖ and the Greens will do much better than last time round. There’s even the outside chance of the FPÖ coming in second place in front of the Social Democrats, though it’s almost certain that there will be a new coalition government in October. most likely either ÖVP/Greens/FPÖ or ÖVP/Greens/BZÖ.