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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Historical development

Austria

1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.1Historical development

Last update: 9 October 2022

Retrospect

Austria's history from the late Middle Ages to 1918 is characterised by the monarchy form of government and the leadership of the Habsburgs. Territorially, the Habsburg Empire temporarily outreached to Spain and Portugal and also included their colonies in America, Africa and Asia. With the end of the Austrian Empire in 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy was established and was the second largest state in Europe after Russia. The Habsburg regency ended with the end of World War I and the proclamation of the First Republic in 1918.

The history of Austria's representation of the people begins with the bourgeois revolution of 1848. The civic society gained strength, parliamentarism began, parties were formed and universal male suffrage was introduced in 1907; women were allowed to vote for the first time in 1918.

 

The first republic

After the First World War (1914 - 1918), the Empire as a multi-ethnic state disintegrated into individual national states, and the First Republic (1918 - 1938) with the name Austria was founded. In 1920, the Austrian Federal Constitution was generated and the first National Council elections with universal voting right were held.

Politics and parliamentarism in the First Republic were characterised by polarisation between ideological factions (Christian Social Party, Social Democratic Workers' Party, German Nationalist Parties). The great world economic crisis of 1929 and the rise of authoritarian movements abroad (Germany, Italy, France) also fuelled anti-democratic forces in Austria. In 1933, an authoritarian regime was founded under the leadership of Chancellor Dollfuß of the „Patriotism Front Party“ (“Vaterländische Front“), with the aim of maintaining Austria as an independent state.

With the invasion of German troops in March 1938 and subsequently an overwhelming popular vote, the annexation ("Anschluss") of Austria to the National Socialist „German Reich“ was completed.

 

The second republic

After the Second World War, the constitution of 1920 was reinstated and Austria was restored to its pre-1938 borders. Free National Council elections were held as early as 1945, from which the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) emerged victorious as the successor party to the Christian Socialists.

10 years after the end of the war, Austria regained its full state sovereignty in 1955 with the Austrian State Treaty and the withdrawal of the four Allies (USA, USSR, United Kingdom and France). In return, Austria commited to codify perpetual neutrality in its constitution and to remain free of military alliances, so that Austria is not a member of NATO to this day. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and beyond, Austria played an important role in foreign policy as a bridge or mediator between Western Europe and the states of the „Eastern Bloc“.

The first years of the Second Republic were marked by so-called „Reconstruction“ („Wiederaufbau“) with the support of the international community (e.g. foreign aid such as the American Marshall Plan).  In the Second Republic, Austrian domestic and foreign policy was shaped by the two "major parties", the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Socialist Party (SPÖ, since 1991 Social Democratic Party), as well as by the involvement of the social partnership. This informal cooperation between employers' and employees' associations (chambers, trade unions) is specific to Austria for balancing interests and conflicts in important social and economic policy issues (e.g. wage negotiations). Until the 1990s it was considered a guarantor of stable labour relations (hardly any strikes) and social peace. With increasing criticism (democratic deficit due to exclusion of the public and parliament, "shadow cabinet"), its political influence has also gradually dwindled or been subject to fluctuations, but the social partnership can be activated in times of crisis if necessary.

With the founding of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), Austria completed the first step of Austria's European integration with its accession on 4 January 1960.

On 1 January 1973, the Free Trade Agreement between Austria and the European Economic Community (EEC, predecessor of today's EU) came into force.

On 7 July 1989, Austria applied to the Council of the European Union ("Letter to Brussels") for membership in the European Union (EU). In the referendum on 12 June 1994, 66% of eligible voters voted in favour of accession. Austria joined the EU together with Sweden and Finland on 1 January 1995, bringing the Union from 12 to 15 member states.

The emergence of social and socio-political protest movements, especially among the youth, in the 1980s and 1990s - especially the "peace", "anti-nuclear", ecology, human rights and anti-globalisation movements - also led to a more colourful party spectrum and more lively parliamentarianism in Austria. New parties, such as the Greens, the Liberal Forum or the NEOS – The New Austria, entered the political stage, others soon disbanded (e.g. BZÖ, List Pilz). The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) was able to steadily increase its share of the vote and has been continuously represented in the Austrian Parliament since 1986. Themes of new social protest movements such as "Fridays-for-Future" (international youth for climate protection) are taken up programmatically by "established" parties.

 

Current situation

Since the last National Council elections on 29 September 2019 with a voter participation of 75%, five parties are represented in Parliament. The Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) received 38% of the votes and 71 mandates, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) 21% of the votes and 40 mandates. With a 16% share of the vote, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) holds 31 mandates, the Greens (14% of the vote) have 26 mandates and the Neos, with an 8% share of the vote, 15 mandates in the current National Council (see figure 1). Since December 2021, a coalition government of the ÖVP and the Greens has been in office since with a (narrow) mandate majority of 97 mandates under Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP).

Austria elections 2019

Figure 1: Distribution of the political mandates in the National Council (N=183), total numbers

Source: Federal Ministry of the Interior, in-house calculations

If one looks at the election results of the National Council elections over time according to the distribution of mandates, it becomes clear that between 50% and 60% of eligible voters still opt for the two "people's parties" (SPÖ and ÖVP). Social developments, the influx of populist parties and the loosening of traditional party ties (decline of "core voters") contribute to the fact that increasingly flexible majorities and issue coalitions shape politics and parliamentarianism. (see Figure 2): 

Austria history elections

Figure 2: Development of the distribution of mandates (N=183) of the political parties in the National Council, election years 1986 to 2019, total numbers

Source: Federal Ministry of the Interior, in-house calculations