Democratic Republic Austria:
Administration, Parties & Politics
"Österreich ist eine demokratische Republik. Ihr Recht geht vom Volk aus."
(„Austria is a democratic Republic. Its laws are derived from its people.")
First line of the "Bundesverfassung" (constitution)
This current Republic of Austria is the second one with this name (the "First Republic" was the one after WWI) and started in 1955. Austria is a federal republic with nine federal provinces. These are, from West to East with their capitals: Vorarlberg, Tirol (Tyrol), Salzburg, Upper Austria (Oberösterreich), Carinthia (Kärnten), Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), Wien (Vienna), Styria (Steiermark) and the Burgenland.
Each of these provinces (called "Bundesländer") have certain autonomous rights and their own provincial governments ("Landesregierung") and governor ("Landeshauptmann" for a man, "Landeshauptfrau" for a woman). The Landesregierung meets in the provincial capitals: Bregenz (Vorarlberg), Innsbruck (Tyrol), Salzburg (guess what), Linz (Upper Austria), Klagenfurt (Carinthia), St. Pölten (Lower Austria), Vienna (so the mayor is also a governor), Graz (Styria) and Eisenstadt (Burgenland). They also send nominates to Austria′s lower house of the parliament (www.parlinkom.gv.at), the widely unimportant "Bundesrat".
Austria′s Federal Parliament & Government
The higher house is the "Nationalrat". The Nationalrat is elected approximately every four years. Listed parties run for the election and those that make more than four percent will gain mandates. The party with the highest number of mandates typically gets the right to form the national government, typically in a coalition with other parties. This is because the Nationalrat votes on laws and the formation and smooth running of a government requires 50 percent of the votes.
Therefore, the leading party will aim to gain enough support to get a majority. There are currently five significant parties in Austria: The Social Democrats (SPÖ - http://www.spoe.at/), the conservative Christian-social People′s Party (ÖVP - http://www.oevp.at/), the Green Party (Grüne - http://www.gruene.or.at/), the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ - http://www.fpoe.at/) and the even stranger, other right-wing populist Union for the Future of Austria (BZÖ - http://www.bzoe.at/). The two houses of the parliament together form the "Bundesversammlung" and has few, but crucial rights (confirms presidential elections, declares wars and such).
The government consists of the Ministers and their Staatssekretäre "State Secretaries". The head of the government is the Chancellor, typically the chair of the biggest party. The smaller coalition party normally adds a Vice-Chancellor (a super-sized minister). The head of the state is not the chancellor, but the president.
The President of Austria is elected directly every six years (maximum twice) and barely involved with the daily business of the government. His job is rather representative and to control the government′s work. He is also the head of the Bundesheer ("military"). More importantly, he signs and thereby confirms new laws, inaugurates new governments and declares the date for national elections.
He can also dissolve provincial governments. A bit like the monarchs of other countries, the president should save his rights for emergency situations - Austrian′s want him to be there for representation and control (in this order) and don′t like it if a president is getting too active.
Political Development since the late 1980ies
For details on the history of that period, please read the relevant article here. By the late 1980ies, an environmental consciousness had developed that led to the formation of the Green party. At the same time (in 1989), the right-wing populist Jörg Haider became the leader of the Freedom Party and silenced the liberal branch of it (this liberal branch later formed an own party, the "Liberales Forum", which has disappeared in oblivion after a bit of success in the 1990ies).
This was in a situation in which Austria was divided into a "red" and a "black" half and Social Democrats and People′s Party seemed to have a shared monopoly on ruling the country. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union from around 1989 on, the whole "left versus right" division became less and less important. Daily issues and individual politicians became more important than ideologies, which helped Haider′s Freedom Party to gain more and more votes. This was mostly done with xenophobic and anti-immigration concepts and attacks against the powerful position of Social Democrats and People′s Party.
Haider received much media attention in Austria and internationally. Interpretations of his policy ranged from "neo-Nazi" to a "politician of a new generation". Whatever you think of Haider, he pioneered a political style in Europe that he imported mainly from the US and was highly media-friendly. Despite of being a multi-millionaire, he managed to present himself as a "lawyer for the little people", supposedly betrayed by foreigners and a corrupt government. Haider became an icon for rightwing-populists all over Europe, as his party gained and gained (5 percent in 1983; 27 percent in 1999).
Austrian Parties: Most recent developments
In 1999, the Social Democrats (still the biggest party) failed to find a partner for a coalition. The People′s Party ended the longstanding isolation of the Freedom Party and formed a government with it against the will of President Thomas Klestil. The People′s Party′s chair Wolfgang Schüssel became chancellor. In the following years, the Freedom Party struggled with the new role as government party - since their support was all based on opposition (anti established parties, anti immigration, anti everything), they lost their credibility when they had to justify unpopular decisions.
This resulted in internal struggles and a dramatic loss of votes at the national elections in 2002 (from 27 percent down to 10 percent), whilst their government partner, the People′s Party, gained significantly. The internal struggles continued and became self-destructive, in 2005 the party split and Jörg Haider founded the "Union for the Future of Austria BZÖ".
Today, the two rightwing populist parties fight each other as small fractions in the parliament and in the media. The international fears of Europe turning Nazi turned out to be somewhat over-rated and disappeared after Silvio Berlusconi′s victory in Italy. Austrian civil rights were clearly not touched by the government and democratic discussions became livelier.
The political spectrum of Austria as of elections of late 2006: A leftwing Green party at around 10 percent, centre-left Social Democrats around 35 percent, centre-right People′s Party around 35 percent, rightwing Freedom party at around 10 percent and the rightwing BZÖ at a dash more than 4 percent. Other Austrian parties that did either not run at the elections in 2006 or not gain the 4 percent necessary to win a mandate include the liberal "Liberales Forum", the peculiar Communist Party (KPÖ) and a dozen even more interesting movements.
Update political spectrum of Austria, elections late 2008: Unexpectedly, the government coalition did not work very well at all and new elections were held after only two years. In these elections, Jörg Haider had his political comeback and increased the share of the BZÖ shortly before his death. The FPÖ also won, both major parties suffered severe losses, the Greens stagnated. The losses of the People's Party were higher than those of the SPÖ. A new grand coalition was formed - only less grand than the previous and equipped with new party leaders.
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