Political Parties

   A centralized parliament of sorts existed in the Habsburg Empire after 1861. Delegates, however, came from the provincial estates, which chose them. These people were not representatives of organized political parties but rather of four prescribed voting blocs or curia, in which membership was determined by the amount of direct taxes individuals paid. The sum was set high enough to exclude the overwhelming majority of Habsburg subjects. Direct election of parliamentary representatives in the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy began only in 1873, and still only for those who could meet an expensive property qualification. Only some 6 percent of adult males could vote. Nevertheless, all of the major political parties in Austria in the 21st century have roots, however modified, in factions and programs that evolved in the Austrian Imperial Council (Reichsrat) between approximately 1870 and 1914. For all that representatives to the Imperial Council had formal agendas, their parliamentary clubs were often indistinguishable from opportunistic factions and tactical coalitions. Name changes were routine. In all, probably around 40 parties, bundled into some 20 political clubs for public deliberative purposes, were operating in the Council at one time or other by the outbreak of World War I. A number of these organizations were closely tied to the ethnic interest groups of the Habsburg Empire, including the German-speaking Austrians. Most significant among the latter were the German Liberals, initially led by Prince Karl von Auersperg (1814–1890). Reconfigured as the United Left in 1871, they, along with the much smaller Progressive Club, dominated the Reichsrat until 1879. Many Liberals were inspired by the Josephinian tradition in Habsburg history, which promoted centralized administration, economic modernization, and secularly oriented education. Others in their camp were more closely attached to the reformist ideals of the Revolutions of 1848: a written constitution, civil liberties, and representative government. A German Clerical Party, which spoke for both the Catholic church and large rural landholders, was much more conservative, particularly in its critique of freethinking intellectuals. By 1880, the German Liberals were at odds among themselves over economic, ethnic, and national issues. The more doctrinaire among them increasingly sided with big business at the expense of the small bourgeoisie and artisans and the agricultural classes generally. One highly exclusionary wing of United Left opposed increasing the number of non-Germans among the Habsburg peoples. The most radical members of the faction, spearheaded by Georg von Schönerer (1842–1921), urged German-speaking provinces to secede from Austria–Hungary and become part of the newly united German Reich.
   Two major alternatives to traditional liberal and conservative factions emerged in the last decades of the Habsburg monarchy. One came from the Marxist-inspired Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP), who first appeared in Vienna during the revolutions of 1848. Brought together in 1888 by Viktor Adler from local socialist splinter groups, the party dedicated itself to improving the material lives of Austria’s laboring poor. Though Austrian social democracy never foreswore its collective solutions for the economic and social problems of the Habsburg lands, it vowed to work for them through parliamentary deliberation rather than violent revolution.
   The other significant new party, the Christian Social Workers’ Union or Christian Social Party (CP) after 1895, grew out of concern within the Catholic church about people adversely affected by the consequences of industrialization and urbanization. Its first leaders, Karl von Vogelsang (1818–1890) and Prince Alois von Liechtenstein (1846–1920), had a social program for artisans, shopkeepers, and even workers that liberals had never consistently offered and socialists only partly endorsed. Vienna’s multiterm mayor Karl Lueger (1844–1910) and the CP of Vienna used their dominant position in the city at the turn of the 20th century to initiate major public works programs that improved the health and welfare of all residents of the city.
   The CP, soon to be led by Ignaz Seipel, and the SDAP, under the stewardship of Karl Renner, were the only major parties in post1918 Austria to retain their prewar character after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918. A German National Party, an amalgamation of 17 smaller parties and provincial groupings, appeared in 1919. Like Renner’s Social Democrats, it advocated Anschluss with Germany. Though a National Socialist Party then present in Austria did not join with them, the German Nationals quickly declared Jews to be a “foreign” element that was best removed from the Austrian body politic.
   The CP and SDAP dominated political life in Austria until 1933; the strength of the latter was in Vienna, and of the former in the provinces. Relations between the two parties became irreparably antagonistic and sometimes openly violent. In 1933, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, a member of the CP, organized the Fatherland Front, which promised to be nonpartisan and to act for Austrians “true to the regime.” Multiparty deliberation ground to a halt; Dollfuss disbanded the SDAP in 1934. He had also declared the National Socialist Party illegal a year earlier, though this did not end its clandestine activities. An attempted putsch failed in 1934, but the Nazis maintained close contact with their German counterparts. One-party rule prevailed in Austria following the Nazi-led Anschluss of 1938.
   Austria’s major political organizations reconstituted themselves quickly after World War II, but on a less adversarial basis. The CP and some remnants of the Fatherland Front became the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP); the party’s new agenda affirmed a commitment to not only Austrian culture and Austrian independence, but democracy as well. Religion was less central to its core program than before 1938. The reconstituted party’s leaders—Leopold Kunschak (1871–1953), Leopold Figl, Julius Raab, and Felix Hurdes (1901–1974)—played key roles in the reestablishment of the Austrian republic. Social Democrats and a much smaller group, the Revolutionary Socialists, came together as the Socialist Party of Austria (SPÖ). This party, too, tempered its ideological rhetoric, especially on religious matters. Its Party Program of October 1947, presented by Adolf Schärf, reiterated socialist concerns for the proletariat and a more egalitarian society and economy. Like the ÖVP, however, the SPÖ supported Austria’s freedom, independence, and neutrality. By 1958, class hostility was toned down even more in a new SPÖ program. Along with the ÖVP, the Socialists promised to maximize human freedom, though through material changes rather than defense of traditional family values and religious institutions, as the ÖVP prescribed. All Austrians were welcome in the party, including those of faith, which was reserved to a private sphere for all. Socialists supported neither capitalism nor dictatorship of any kind, the communist variety included. Nevertheless, the Austrian Communist Party, outlawed in 1933, reappeared under Ernst Fischer (1899–1972), who returned from the Soviet Union in 1945 to chair it. Communists participated in the newly formed Austrian government in 1945. Even they, however, accorded private enterprise a role in rebuilding the country.
   In February 1949, some of the National Socialists who remained in Austria, along with others not affiliated with any party, came together in the League of Independents (Verein der Unabhängigen = VdU). This group joined forces in 1955 with the Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei) to form the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), led from 1958 to 1978 by Friedrich Peter (1921–2005). Though Peter’s career in the Nazi SS during World War II troubled many of Austria’s politicians and voters, he was willing to bend doctrine at will to form coalitions with mainstream parties, particularly the SPÖ. Its program was far more procapitalist and antistatist than that of either of the two major parties. Advocating a tighter rein on government spending, the FPÖ consistently attacked politicized administrative appointments that kept loyalists of the SPÖ and the ÖVP paid and pensioned, but were, according to FPÖ doctrine, irrelevant to the common good. In the 20 years after 1945, the ÖVP and SPÖ dominated the coalitions that governed Austria. In 1966, however, having won an absolute majority of seats in the parliamentary elections, the ÖVP became the first party to lead post–World War II Austria alone. Joseph Klaus (1910–2001) remained federal chancellor until 1970. One-party government continued until 1983, but under the SPÖ led by Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. When the Socialists lost their majority in 1983, Kreisky refused to cooperate in forming a coalition, leaving his successor as chancellor, Fred Sinowatz (1929–2008), to arrange a controversial coalition with the FPÖ. The ascendancy of the major parties weakened as new groupings emerged. A Green Party had been established in 1981. By 1983, the Greens (Grünen), along with another leftist faction, the Austrian Alternative List (ALÖ), were siphoning off votes from both major parties. The Socialists were very hard hit. Several other splinter parties added to the general political realignment in national elections between 1983 and 1999. The rise of the mercurial Jörg Haider in the FPÖ in the 1980s made formation of coalition governments even more difficult. Combining a strong nationalist bent with bold antistatist economic proposals, Haider capitalized on fears about unrestricted immigration and restlessness, particularly among younger voters, with an increasingly ingrown party system. When Haider became FPÖ chairperson in 1986, alarms went off around the world about a resurgence of political and ethnic xenophobia in Austria, which was displacing old-fashioned neo-Nazism but continued to have a racist subtext. The country’s mainstream parties were wary of working with Haider, although the ÖVP under the leadership of Wolfgang Schüssel would take the plunge after a tight election in 2000. Nor were all members of Haider’s own party enthusiastic about his leadership. Heide Schmidt (1948–), the vice-chairperson of the FPÖ, broke away to found the Liberal Forum (LiF) in February 1993, in protest against Haider’s agenda. Its appeal to the electorate stalled, however, and internal wrangling quickly marginalized the movement. Though elections in 1994 and 1995 gave the LiF a smattering of seats in the parliament, it won none in 1999. Haider himself established his own splinter party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), in 2005. Though the movement drew a surprising 11 percent of the vote in the national elections of 2008, Haider’s death in that same year left the future of the party in serious doubt.
   See also Ausgleich; Joseph II.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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