Election Resources on the Internet:
Federal Elections in Austria - Elections to the Nationalrat (National Council)
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

Austria held a parliamentary election on Sunday, September 29, 2013. An overview of the proportional representation systems used since 1945 to choose members of the lower chamber of the Austrian Parliament - the Nationalrat or National Council - is presented here.

In addition, federal- and state-level results are available here for the following National Council elections:

      September 29, 2013      
      September 28, 2008      
      October 1st, 2006      
      November 24, 2002      
      October 3, 1999      
      December 17, 1995      
      October 9, 1994      
      October 7, 1990      
      November 23, 1986      
      April 24, 1983      
      May 6, 1979      
      October 5, 1975      
      October 10, 1971      
      March 1st, 1970      
      March 6, 1966      
      November 18, 1962      
      May 10, 1959      
      May 13, 1956      
      February 22, 1953      
      October 9, 1949      
      November 25, 1945      

The election statistics presented in this space come from reports and data files issued by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which has detailed 2013 National Council election results in German.


General Aspects of the Electoral System

The Parliament of the Republic of Austria is composed of a lower house, the Nationalrat or National Council, whose members are directly elected by universal adult suffrage, and an upper house, the Bundesrat or Federal Council, whose members are appointed by the legislatures of the Länder or states of Austria. The National Council has greater legislative power than the Federal Council, which generally speaking has only limited veto powers over legislation passed by the former.

The National Council is composed of 183 members elected for a four-year term of office. Since 1920, elections to the National Council have been carried out by proportional representation, although the seat allocation procedures were modified in 1970 and in 1992.

Before 1971, the National Council had 165 seats, filled in twenty-five multi-member constituencies. Seats were allocated in each of these constituencies by the Hagenbach-Bischoff method, in which an electoral quota was calculated by dividing the total number of valid votes by the number of seats to be allocated plus one. The number of votes polled by each party was then divided by the electoral quota, and the result, disregarding fractions, was the number of mandates allocated to the party. The constituencies were then grouped into four electoral constituency unions (Wahlkreisverband), to distribute any remaining unallocated seats after the application of the Hagenbach-Bischoff rule. Remainder votes - the remainders of the division of party votes by the electoral quota - were pooled at the constituency union level along with unfilled seats, which were then allocated in each Wahlkreisverband by the largest average method, also known as the d'Hondt rule. However, the overall distribution of National Council seats was only roughly proportional to the parties' voting strength: larger parties were usually over-represented at the expense of smaller groups, and more than once the party that came in second place managed to win the largest number of seats.

In 1970, the National Council was expanded to its present size of 183 seats, and the twenty-five electoral constituencies were reduced to nine, corresponding to each one of the states of Austria; likewise, the electoral constituency unions were reduced from four to just two. For the distribution of constituency seats, the Hagenbach-Bischoff rule was replaced by the Hare method, in which the electoral quota is calculated by dividing the total number of valid votes by the number of seats to be filled; unallocated seats continued to be apportioned by the d'Hondt rule. Seat distributions in National Council elections became more proportionate, but this benefit came at the expense of large electoral constituencies: the average constituency size increased from just under seven seats to more than twenty.

The two-tier National Council electoral system was replaced in 1992 with a three-stage procedure that reintroduced smaller-sized constituencies - to foster closer links among voters and their elected representatives - without sacrificing proportionality in the distribution of seats. Under this system, which has remained in place to this day, the Länder continue to function as state constituencies, but these are in turn divided in forty-three regional constituencies. Parties submit regional, state and federal lists of candidates; electors vote for a party and may cast preferential votes for one regional list candidate and one state list candidate. A statewide electoral quota, calculated by the Hare method, is used to allocate seats at both the regional constituency and state levels; seats won by a party at the regional constituency level - direct mandates - are subtracted from its corresponding statewide seat total, and the remaining mandates come from the party's state lists. Finally, all 183 National Council seats are distributed at the federal level by the d'Hondt rule; seats won by a party at the state level are then deducted from its corresponding nationwide seat total, and the remaining mandates are allocated from the party's federal lists. Nonetheless, a party must receive at least four percent of the vote or win at least one direct mandate in order to secure representation in the National Council.

The Political Parties

Since the end of World War II, when the victorious Allies re-established Austria as an independent polity after seven years of annexation (Anschluss) by Nazi Germany, the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the left-of-center Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ; from 1945 to 1991 the Socialist Party of Austria) have been the country's two major political forces. From 1945 to 1966, the ÖVP and the SPÖ ruled together in a grand coalition government.

Until 1947 the ruling coalition also included the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ). However, the KPÖ never achieved a large electoral following: by 1949, the Union of Independents (VdU) had emerged as the largest opposition group. Both the VdU and its 1956 successor, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) attracted former Nazis as well as liberals. After the State Treaty of 1955 made Austria fully sovereign (as well as neutral), and Soviet troops withdrew from the eastern part of the country, the KPÖ's fortunes declined: in 1959 it lost the few seats it held in the National Council, and in subsequent elections it gradually lost most of its remaining support. Meanwhile, the FPÖ remained the only opposition party with parliamentary representation.

Following more than two decades of grand coalition governments, the ÖVP won an absolute majority in the 1966 National Council election and formed Austria's first postwar, single-party government. However, in the 1970 election the SPÖ won the largest number of seats in the National Council and formed a minority government supported by the FPÖ. In an early election held in 1971, the Socialists gained an absolute majority in the National Council, which they held until 1983. The SPÖ, which had ruled alone since 1971, then formed a coalition government with the FPÖ, which at the time had come under the control of its liberal wing. This arrangement lasted until 1986, when the FPÖ chose Jörg Haider, an extreme-right wing nationalist, as party leader.

Since 1986 there have been a number of notable developments in Austrian politics, the most prominent of which has been the meteoric rise and fall (and subsequent resurgence) of the Freedom Party. Under the leadership of Jörg Haider, a controversial figure who once praised the employment policies of Nazi Germany, and running on an anti-immigration platform, the FPÖ increased its share of the vote in four out of five National Council elections held from 1986 to 1999, shooting up from 5.0% in 1983 to 26.9% in 1999, when it outpolled the ÖVP by the narrowest of margins and became the second-largest party in terms of votes (but not of seats: both parties tied for second place, with 52 mandates each). The success of the FPÖ was also fueled by voter discontent with the two major parties: from 1986 to 1999, the SPÖ and the ÖVP held power together once again in a succession of grand coalition governments.

The FPÖ's lurch to the right eventually led the liberal wing to break off the party and establish the Liberal Forum (LIF) in 1993. Initially, the new party enjoyed a measure of success, securing parliamentary representation in the 1994 and 1995 National Council elections. However, in 1999 the party came up just short of the four percent threshold, losing all of its seats in the process; in 2002 it fell even further behind.

Another major development in contemporary Austrian politics has been the emergence of the environmentalist-oriented Austrian Greens. In 1983, two Green parties, the United Greens of Austria (VGÖ) and the Alternative List of Austria (ALÖ), contested the election, but neither won seats in the National Council, as they ran separately and cancelled each other out. In 1986, both groups set aside their differences and ran under a joint ticket, the Green Alternative, which secured parliamentary representation. Although divisions resurfaced later on, the Greens have continued to win seats in successive National Council elections. In recent years, the party's share of the vote has almost doubled, increasing from 5.5% in 1995 to 9.5% in 2002.

After the 1999 National Council elections, the Social Democrats and the People's Party were expected to reach a new coalition agreement, but negotiations between the two parties broke down in early 2000. Then, in a surprising turn of events, the ÖVP and the rightist Freedom Party formed a coalition government, headed by People's Party leader Wolfgang Schüssel. Not surprisingly, the inclusion in government of the FPÖ - by now widely perceived as an extremist party - resulted in a storm of controversy both in Austria and beyond her borders: the other fourteen members of the European Union at the time went as far as imposing diplomatic sanctions, which were dropped later that year. As it turned out, the ÖVP emerged as the dominant coalition partner, firmly in control of the governmental agenda, while the FPÖ proved to be inexperienced, and accomplished very little.

Following a period of party strife in the FPÖ, Chancellor Schüssel broke the coalition and called an early general election, held in November 2002. In the election, the FPÖ collapsed from 26.9% to 10.0%, while the ÖVP emerged as the largest single party in the National Council for the first time since 1966. With 79 seats, the People's Party could have formed a coalition with any one of the other three parties with parliamentary representation, namely the Social Democrats (69 seats), the Freedom Party (18 seats) or the Greens (17 seats). In due course, the ÖVP renewed its coalition with a much-reduced FPÖ, and Chancellor Schüssel remained in power.

In 2005, Jörg Haider broke with the FPÖ and formed the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), taking with him most of his old party's leadership and parliamentarians. In an unusual turn of events, the BZÖ subsequently became the ÖVP's coalition partner, replacing the FPÖ. However, in a general election held in October 2006, the ÖVP-BZÖ coalition lost its parliamentary majority, and the SPÖ scored an upset victory, narrowly outpolling Chancellor Schüssel's People's Party. After the election, Austrian President Heinz Fischer asked Social Democratic Party leader Alfred Gusenbauer to form a government, and the SPÖ entered coalition talks with the ÖVP. After nearly three months of negotiations, in January 2007 the Social Democrats and the People's Party reached an agreement to form a coalition government headed by Gusenbauer.

However, Gusenbauer's grand coalition government collapsed in July 2008 after only a year-and-a-half in office, due to policy differences between SPÖ and ÖVP on a number of issues, chiefly among them the European Union (EU). The ruling parties subsequently agreed to an early general election, which was held the following September 28. In the election, support for FPÖ and BZÖ soared - the two far-right parties polled a combined 28.2% of the vote, slightly above the Freedom Party's showing in the 1999 general election - while both the Social Democrats and the People's Party had their worst results since 1945. Nonetheless, SPÖ and ÖVP retained an overall majority in the National Council, and in November 2008 the two parties agreed once more to form a grand coalition government, headed by SPÖ leader Werner Faymann.

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Copyright © 2006-2013 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: September 29, 2013.