Austria and the European Parliament Elections: a look at 1999 and 2004

Article published on March 11, 2009
Article published on March 11, 2009
With the input of Stefan Fersterer.By Daniel Spichtinger.

On June 7 Austrians will cast their votes in the 2009 elections to the European Parliament. Let’s look at how the last two election campaigns in 1999 and 2004 were run to find out what may await us in 2009.

 In the two previous elections the ÖVP (Austrian conservative party) presented itself as the most pro-European choice. Both in 1999 and in 2004 their principal candidate, Ursula Stenzel, has been the focus of their campaigns, so much so that other politicians rarely appeared on ÖVP posters. But even the ÖVP presented their campaigns in the framework of defending Austria’s interest in the EU and Stenzel as the ”Voice of Austria”. In 2004 the ÖVP basically repeated their previous campaign, reaffirming that Stenzel was the best and most powerful representative of Austria in the European Union. Stenzel will no longer stand in 2009 but the ÖVP will continue to present itself as the party of Europe.

The SPÖ too fought a personalized campaign in 1999, focusing on their top candidate for the European Parliament, H.P. Martin (now an independent MEP) and then chancellor, Viktor Klima. In the wake of the NATO intervention in Kosovo their campaign centred on retaining Austria’s neutrality within the EU. By 2004, however, the SPÖ was in opposition and ran a much more polemic campaign. This time the top candidate for the European parliament was Hannes Swoboda who campaigned not only for social Europe but also for „making the voice of Austria heard in Brussels“ and even for protecting Austrian water from being privatised (a plan allegedly being developed in Brussels). Social Europe is likely to be a prominent slogan in the 2009 campaign as well.

The right wing FPÖ (Freedom Party) has been consistently anti-European in both the 1999 and the 2004 elections, highlighting corruption scandals and the need to check what Brussels is doing. In 2004 additional topics included the rejection of the Turkish membership bid and anti-nuclear policy. After the SPÖ candidate Svoboda denounced the FPÖ as racist in an open letter, the FPÖ in turn declared the SPÖ to be traitors to Austria and announced „each vote for the FPÖ is a vote for Austria”. Under the leadership of populist H.C. Strache the FPÖ is expected to do well in the upcoming elections. The Greens have tried to position themselves as a pro-European party on the left side of the political spectrum. In 1999 their campaign was strongly focused on their top candidate Johannes Voggenhubber. In 2004 the Greens had high ambitions of running a truly European campaign. Their posters were an attempt to merge both national and European topics, by having European slogans and cartoons of national politicians on the same posters. In some cases a connection between the election slogans and the cartoons was easy to make (such as Haider and the slogan „vote against nationalism“) but in others it was harder to do so. Due to infighting and the current political climate the Green share of the vote is likely to stagnate in the 2009 elections. What was the outcome of weeks and months of election campaigns? Both in 1999 and in 2004 the SPÖ won with 31,7% and 33,4% respectively. In both elections they were trailed by the ÖVP with 30,67% in 1999 and 32,7% in 2004. However, the different political situation in 1999 and 2004 resulted in very different results for the other parties. In 1999 the FPÖ was at the height of its powers and achieved 23,4% of votes. However, after a couple of years in government most of their voters were deeply disillusioned with them and only a mere 6,3% voted for the Freedom party in 2004. In fact in 2004 the third place was taken by another Eurosceptic candidate, Hans-Peter Martin (who had run for the Socialists in 1999 but then decided to quit the party). The Greens achieved 9,29% in 1999 and were able to increase their share of the votes to 12,8% in 2004. Looking at these two elections it is very clear that European elections do not really exist in Austria. Rather, all parties, even the most pro-European ones, have so far regarded the European elections in a national framework. MEPs are portrayed as fighting for Austrian interests rather than deciding European issues together with their colleagues from the European Socialist Party, the European People’s Party or the European Greens. A truly European campaign, where issues of concern to the EU as a whole are addressed, has yet to emerge.