Chancellor, Federal

   The title of chancellor (Germ.: Kanzler) in the Second Austrian Republic was passed on from the administration of the First Republic. Though some high officials of the former Habsburg Empire and the Holy Roman Empire had also been called chancellors, their duties and their relationship to monarchical sovereignty had been very different.
   Modern Austrian chancellors were at their most powerful under the constitutional arrangements introduced by the quasi-dictatorial regime of Engelbert Dollfuss. They had wide powers to intervene in provincial governments and to guide the work of federal ministers closely.
   Since 1945, four federal chancellors have been acting presidents of Austria when that office was temporarily vacated. The federal chancellor in Austria today, however, is formally a rather weak figure, much like his counterpart in the Constitution of 1920. He presides over meetings of government department ministers and presents programs and resolutions that arise from these gatherings to the lower house of the Parliament. Ministers, however, are constitutionally empowered to formulate policy for their specific portfolios quite independent of the chancellor.
   Until 1964, Austrian chancellors presided over coalition governments of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Socialist Party of Austria (SPÖ). Each side was heavily committed to a closely regulated currency and banking system as well as a social market economy to which private and public enterprise contributed significantly. Both parties stressed the need for social harmony in a country that had seen relatively little of that in the 20th century. By the 1960s, however, a wing of the ÖVP began to argue for liberalizing the Austrian economy and integrating it more closely with the fiscal and industrial policies of the West. Leading spokesmen for this move were Alfons Gorbach, federal chancellor of the coalition government in power from 1961 to 1964, and, more aggressively, Josef Klaus (1910–2001), who assumed the office in 1964. After two more years of coalition government with the SPÖ, Klaus declared that he and his party were ready to lead Austria alone. His chancellorship, which ran from 1964 to 1970, was the first systematic effort to move Austria from paternalism to a society that offered more leeway for individual decision and initiative. Klaus and his supporters within his party claimed to be developing what they called a new Austrian society, in which modern managerial practices and computer-run data management techniques would continue prosperity for all. Although Austria did begin to make significant changes in manufacturing and commerce, a serious ebb in economic activity, coupled with higher taxes imposed during Klaus’s tenure, weakened the appeal of his governments considerably. The appeal of Bruno Kreisky’s four chancellorships (1970–1983) rested, in large part, on his commitment to fiscal and social egalitarianism and to keeping unemployment to a minimum.
   Kreisky’s bypassing of ministerial prerogative, especially in foreign relations, was often controversial. A one-time foreign minister of the Second Republic, he was deeply interested in world events throughout most of his tenure; he engaged himself actively in Middle East and North–South affairs and became for many the voice of his country on these matters. As foreign ministers, he had two professional diplomats and one constitutional scholar, none of whom belonged to a political party at the time he held office. Kreisky appears, however, not to have intruded in the routine operations of that office.
   The SPÖ leaders who succeeded Kreisky as chancellor, Fred Sinowatz (1929–2008), Franz Vranitzky, and Viktor Klima, brought into their governments—all coalitions with either the ÖVP or the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)—inherited one unfortunate side of the Kreisky years. Sinowatz particularly, an unassuming educator who visibly disliked the cut and thrust of Austrian politics, was plagued by scandals that had begun in the governments of his predecessor. The far more worldly Vranitzky enjoyed high public approval, embodiment though he was of a generation of Austrian SPÖ functionaries who were as much at home in world investment banks as they were on picket lines. He had many opportunities to exercise his skills abroad. His first three chancellorships (1986 to 1994) coincided in large part with the presidency of Kurt Waldheim, who was persona non grata in the United States and virtually throughout the world for failing to disclose his role in Nazi armies in the Balkans during World War II. Vranitzky was thrust into performing the representative functions normally exercised by Austrian presidents before foreign states. By 1997, the ongoing impact of old scandals coupled with some of Vranitzky’s own making, along with popular fears about the upsurge in immigration from eastern Europe and the Muslim world, had eroded much popular support for the SPÖ. Vranitzkty resigned, to be replaced as chancellor by Viktor Klima, who was no more effective in reversing the sliding fortunes of the SPÖ in elections. In 2000 the ÖVP, led by Wolfgang Schüssel of the ÖVP, received the largest plurality in a national vote.
   As chancellor, Schüssel entered into a highly controversial coalition with the FPÖ, whose standard-bearer was the populist Jörg Haider. Faced with the sanctions of the European Union, Schüssel succeeded in having them canceled in the fall of 2000. An advocate of free markets and a general rollback of state entitlements, Schüssel and his finance minister from the FPÖ, Karl-Heinz Grasser (1969–), labored for almost six years to reduce Austrian state debt and deficits. Finally brought down by a public weary of budget cutting and a regime that often made exceptions for its members where fiscal austerity and skirting the law were concerned, Schüssel’s government collapsed in 2006. His successor as chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, also had little lasting public appeal. His government lasted only for a year. In the summer of 2008, Gusenbauer was replaced as SPÖ chair by Werner Faymann (1960–), who was the party’s standard-bearer, in a close election in September 2008. Faymann became federal chancellor that December.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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