Immigration and welfare form Austrian-election battleground

Austria’s general elections, fought on the issues of immigration and decline of the welfare state, are scheduled for 1 October and could produce a number of coalitions.

Campaigning has seen two main issues emerge: immigration and the decline of the welfare state. The campaign has been cited as perhaps the dirtiest in Austria’s history, filled with personal attacks and blatant populism. 

Campaign posters featured demands to ‘Oust 300,000 Immigrants’ while electioneering calls for “Home not Islam,” or “Safe Pensions, not Asylum-millions,” were heard. The tone for the elections was set by the in-fight between two right-wing parties, the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria, both intimately linked to extreme-right populist Jörg Haider. 

Alliance and Freedom parties have both sought turn discontent and anti-immigrant feelings into votes, while the campaign’s second dominating issue, social security, was linked directly to the populism of the right. Austrians fear that immigrants take away jobs, receive too many social benefits, are responsible for the raise in crime levels and are not willing to integrate. 

Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, while more moderate, is an outspoken critic of Turkey’s accession to the EU, a view shared by the opposition Social Democrats. The Democrats, who are poised to retain their position as the country’s second-strongest party, devoted a large part of their campaign attempting to disassociate from the BAWAG banking scandal. The bank, now for sale, was controlled by the socialist-dominated unions. 

Several party members became embroiled in a scandal over the collapse of elaborate speculation deals that brought the bank close to collapse. Among the party’s election promises were pledges to secure the welfare state, protect pensions and redistribute wealth to middle- and lower-income citizens. 

The Greens were the only party openly campaigning for immigrants’ rights, and also advocated alternative energy sources, gender equality and the abolition of university fees.


Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, who believes that his conservative People's Party will be returned to power, expressed his view on immigration: "Anyone who wants to live with us must learn the language and must be ready to accept our culture.

“We believe Austria is a rich country and that its wealth needs to be distributed more even-handedly," says Social Democrat leader Alfred Gusenbauer.

Peter Westenthaler, leading candidate for Alliance For Austria's Future party wants to deport 300,000 foreigners out of the country "by car, train or bus".
Jörg Haider: "They're all trying to destroy me with their talk in the corridors of Vienna. They think I'll be buried on Sunday. But the corpses won't be here, they'll be in Vienna."


As far as prospective coalitions are concerned, the People’s Party (OeVP) and Social Democrats (SPOe, ‘Red’), credited with establishing democracy and reviving the economy after the war and with moving Austria into the European Union in 1995, are said to want to join forces with a smaller party, but a ‘grand coalition’ might be the only viable option if five or six parties make it into parliament. 
OeVP and ‘Green’ parties nearly formed a coalition following Austria’s last election in 2002, but failed to agree on pension reform, university fees and the purchase of EADS jet fighters. Analysts say that a deal is more likely this time, due to the People's Party’s “limited options” and the fact that many of the Greens' ageing leaders are keener than before finally to enter government. Schüssel would probably stay Chancellor in this coalition too. 
A ‘Red/Green coalition modelled on the one that ran Germany under Gerhard Schröder would be preferred by both parties to a coalition with the conservatives, but polls indicate that only a wafer-thin majority is possible, and unlikely. Social Democrat leader Alfred Gusenbauer would become Chancellor in this coalition. 
A ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ (Freedom Party, FPOe) alliance has been discounted by both factions, but some analysts refuse to dismiss the option. However, this would represent a major volte-face for both Schüssel and Freedom leader Heinz-Christian Strache, likely only if there is a failure to form any other possible coalition. 
A ‘Blue’ and ‘Orange’ coalition with Peter Westenthaler’s ‘Alliance For Austria's Future party (BZOe, ‘Orange’) party, which has strong links with extreme-right winger Jörg Haider, is deemed very unlikely, as polls indicate that the extreme-right wing leader will only gain around 3% of the vote, insufficient to enter Parliament.


1 October: Austrian general elections.

Further Reading