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Austria: EU Election Results Reveal That All Politics Are Still Local

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 14 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The results of yesterday's voting for the European Parliament (EP) in Austria underline the special, paradoxical character of balloting for the European Union's representative chamber: In voting for members of the 15-nation parliament, domestic --not European-- issues generally determine the result.

At the same time, voters allow their emotions, rather than their reason, to guide their choices far more than they do in local or national elections. Elections for the EP are thus a therapeutic way of letting off steam without severe political consequences.

Analysts agree that both those elements were evident in Austria's Euro-parliament election, the first the country has held since it joined the EU 22 months ago. They say that internal questions were largely responsible for the spectacular leap forward of the country's far-right Freedom Party, which scored its best results ever in any election by winning almost 28 percent of the vote.

The party is led by Joerg Haider, whose folksy, xenophobic oratory attracts increasing numbers of Austrians while repelling many others. It achieved its record victory after a strong anti-immigrant, anti-bureaucracy and anti-federal EU campaign.

Now the most popular extreme-right group in Europe, the Freedom Party gained close to six points more than it had in last December's national elections. It will fill 6 of Austria's 21 seats in the 626-member European Parliament. The Social Democrats --yesterday's biggest losers -- will also fill 6 seats, while the conservative People's Party will have 7 deputies and 2 small left parties one each.

Haider called the results "an historic step" for his party. He said that Austria's "domestic political landscape had been turned upside down and that (the Freedom Party's) chances of winning power are better now with all three major parties neck-and-neck."

Social Democratic leader Franz Vranitzsky admitted what he called a "clear defeat," but said he would not interpret it as a demand by the electorate for changes in the government he currently heads.

The Social Democrats can take some comfort from the fact that sitting governments across the continent often are battered in EP votes. In the 17 years since EU parliamentarians were first chosen by election -- before, they were simply appointed in proportions matching their national parliaments -- voters have consistently used the ballot as a means of expressing their displeasure with domestic developments. This time, analysts say, Austrians were unhappy with the austerity budget introduced seven months ago by Vranitzsky. It reduces welfare benefits while raising taxes and energy costs.

According to the analysts, many voters yesterday also were showing their regret with Austria's joining of the EU, which two-thirds of them opted for in a 1994 ballot. Austrians believe that, apart from a temporary drop in some food prices, they have accrued few palpable benefits from their country's membership in the Union and its single market.

Because Austria is a relatively rich EU member, it gives the Union far more -- $1.4 billion more annually -- than it receives. Moreover, its current austerity budget is, in large part, an attempt by the government to meet the strict criteria laid down in the EU's 1993 Maastricht Treaty for joining the European Monetary Union projected for 1999.

Haider took adroit advantage of all those disappointments and resentments. He attacked what he labeled a "Maastricht Europe (that would create) a centralist European state with Brussels as its capital." Hailing his victory last night, he promised that the Freedom Party would help create a new anti-federalist block in the European Parliament, which is still mostly controlled by a center-left coalition.

Finally, however, it was the Freedom Party's anti-immigration stance that probably contributed most to its stunning victory. That was suggested yesterday in parallel state elections for Vienna, which ended 50 years of Social Democratic rule of the capital and gave Haider's group a strong second place with 28 percent. Vienna is where most recent immigrants to Austria choose to live.