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Austria: After Landslide Victory, People's Party Looking For Partner

Austria's incumbent Christian democratic People's Party scored a resounding victory in general elections yesterday but not enough to form a one-party government. The far-right Freedom Party suffered a huge loss of support, leading the party's best-known member, Joerg Haider, to announce his intention to resign as governor of Carinthia. As RFE/RL reports, the People's Party, at least in theory, can form a ruling coalition with any of the three other parties in parliament.

Prague, 25 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's People's Party (OeVP) scored a record surge of support in yesterday's parliamentary elections, garnering nearly 43 percent of the vote, compared to just 26.9 percent three years ago.

Thus, for the first time in 36 years, the Social Democratic Party (SPOe) has had to relinquish its first-place standing, though it had won increased support of nearly 4 percentage points to 36.9 percent.

The pollsters had predicted a much closer race. One leading pollster, Werner Beutelmayer, said, "these election results show an incredible flexibility: The voters no longer think in terms of political camps."

Schuessel seemed just as surprised by the OeVP's strong showing. Speaking last night about news of the result, he said: "It is breathtaking. It is an outstanding final result. Actually, this was an unbelievable wave, a wave of confidence that carried us. The outcome is unexpected. I say this openly. But thank God it is a clear result. There can be no doubt about how Austria should be led and who should lead Austria, and, thus, it is also a great responsibility."

The OeVP chief for the province of Lower Austria, Erwin Proell, said the party must now work quickly to form a broad, predictable, stable government.

Schuessel has the unprecedented luxury of being able to form a governing coalition of the OeVP with any of the other three parties in parliament: the Freedom Party (FPOe), the incumbent junior coalition partner; the Social Democrats; or the Greens.

"We want to conduct open discussions with all three parties. Nothing has been decided. We want to make sure that all our reform proposals are met, and it all depends on with which party we can agree on this. We want to offer trustworthy cooperation to all three parties. I do not exclude anyone. It will depend on our partners, those who want to work with us," Schuessel said.

All three parties have expressed a willingness to talk with the OeVP, but only one party so far has declared its desire to be a coalition partner: the far-right Freedom Party. The FPOe suffered the biggest loss by any Austrian party since 1945, plummeting from its record high three years ago of 26.9 percent to just under 10.2 percent.

FPOe leader Herbert Haupt said his party clearly failed to achieve its goal of 15 percent. But he said he will recommend to his party's leadership that the party nevertheless negotiate government participation with the OeVP.

Voter turnout at nearly 80.5 percent was high but not a record. The People's Party took first place in five of Austria's eight provinces, but won a majority in only one, Tirol, where in some villages it took more than 90 percent of the vote.

The Social Democrats took first place in Vienna and, notably, in the province of Carinthia, the home of the FPOe's former leader, Joerg Haider, who is governor of the province.

Losing out to the Social Democrats in his own province appears to have been the last straw for Haider, who today announced his intention to resign the governorship. Earlier this year, Haider resigned from party politics over an alleged death threat. Nevertheless, Haider is being credited by his party's chief for Carinthia, Martin Strutz, with having prevented the FPOe's total collapse in the elections.

The Social Democrat leader, Alfred Gusenbauer, said he will keep his campaign pledge that second place for his party means remaining in the opposition. "The bitter aftertaste is that our gains were not enough. The OeVP won very significantly, and I congratulate them on this outcome. It is thus completely clear that if the two ruling parties want to continue governing, they can. They have a solid majority in parliament and can take this mandate by the voters seriously," Gusenbauer said.

Gusenbauer said he expects the People's Party and the Freedom Party to continue running the government but that like the other parties, his Social Democrats will hold discussions with the People's Party. "I believe this is the declared mandate from this election, but that does not mean that we will not participate in the discussions, since in the end, it's all about the future of Austria, and it depends on us how we will master the great challenge ahead of us. We will try to contribute to this as a strengthened opposition," Gusenbauer said.

Nevertheless, Austrian President Thomas Klestil can be expected to urge formation of a grand coalition of the OeVP and the Social Democrats in a bid to reestablish stability in Austrian politics, sorely tested by the FPOe presence in the Austrian government for nearly three years.

The FPOe strongly opposes EU expansion and, though it will have negligible influence in parliament, its continued presence in a coalition government could continue to cause difficulties, particularly for EU accession by the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

The Greens finished fourth with nearly 9 percent but succeeded in attracting more voters than three years ago. However, the Social Democrats' weaker-than-expected standing has doomed any chances of a center-left coalition.

The leader of the Greens, Alexander Van der Bellen, said: "There isn't enough for a [Social Democratic-Green coalition]. That's on the negative side, so to say, and on the positive side, we have achieved the best election results of the Greens in history."

Van der Bellen, the Vienna-born son of an Estonian mother and a Russian father of Dutch extraction, said that in view of OeVP comments about the Greens during the campaign, he cannot imagine that the People's Party would offer the Greens the opportunity to be a junior partner in an OeVP-led coalition.