Austria & the Ghost of the New Europe

Vienna

On Sunday December 17 two parliamentary elections were held in Europe. In Russia, the subcontinent’s largest country, the Communists and their allies were victorious, emulating similar successes by Communist and ex-Communist parties in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere in the former Eastern bloc. In Austria, one of Europe’s smallest states, nothing much happened: the governing majority was once again returned to office, fighting off a challenge from right-wing opponents. But the circumstances of the Austrian election may prove the better, and also the more disturbing, guide to the European situation in coming years.

On the face of it that proposition may seem unlikely. It has been a long time since Austria mattered much for anyone who doesn’t live there. Since the State Treaty of 1955, when Allied occupation forces withdrew, and Austria entered the UN and declared itself permanently neutral, the Alpine Republic (as it likes, somewhat misleadingly, to be known) has become a stable and prosperous country at the center of Europe. Its eight million people (a quarter of whom live in Vienna) derive their income in large measure from tourism, and employment in nationalized industries and the state bureaucracy, and have been governed since the first post-war elections by two political parties, normally in coalition. The People’s Party, heir to the Christian Social Party of the pre-war years, with close links to the Catholic Church, was the senior member of the governing alliance from 1945 to 1966 and then governed alone between 1966 and 1970. Since then the Socialists, formerly the junior coalition partner, have been the larger party and have governed in unbroken sequence either alone or supported in their turn, since 1986, by the People’s Party. Only briefly, from 1983 to 1986, has this “large coalition” been abandoned for a “small coalition” between the Socialists and the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party, of which more later.

This remarkable political continuity is further sustained by the social peace enforced through the system of “social partnership” set up in 1957. Just as the coalition partners distribute ministries, patronage appointments, and money according to their respective electoral strength—a system known as Proporz—so unions, chambers of commerce, and representatives of industry have for forty years discussed and ironed out social and economic disagreements under a de facto corporatist system in which conflicts between capital and labor are muted. Political and economic strategies are decided in a complex series of formal and informal meetings, of which parliament itself is perhaps the least significant, serving only to rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere and brought to it by the leaders of the governing parties, after consulting with union and company officials. In a country whose earlier history was marked by geographical amputation, economic collapse, civil war, occupation, and defeat, Austrians were on the whole pleased with the stabilizing benefits of these conventions.

But in 1994 the foundations of Austria’s post-war system began to crumble. In the parliamentary elections of that year the two ruling parties between …

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