Central Europe Correspondent
After less than one year in office, Austria's governing coalition split apart yesterday, plunging the country into an early general election which could transform its political landscape.
The split between the governing Socialist (SPO) and People's (OVP) parties followed the collapse of attempts to bridge their differences over how to reduce a spiralling budget deficit. The SPO wanted most of a Sch50bn (pounds 3.8bn) reduction to be achieved through higher taxes. The more conservative OVP wanted cuts in Austria's generous welfare payments and state subsidies.
According to Wolfgang Schussel, the OVP leader, the dispute reflected a "fundamental battle over [the] direction" of the country. Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, the SPO leader, believed the differences were reconcilable and accused his OVP counterpart of a "flight from responsibility" by precipitating fresh elections, now due on 17 December.
Certainly much of the pressure for yesterday's move came from the ambitious Mr Schussel, who only took over the leadership of his party in April. With the OVP riding high in the opinion polls, he undoubtedly sees a chance for his party to overtake the SPO as the country's dominant political force and for himself to become chancellor.
But Mr Schussel's gamble could backfire and lead to a further surge of support for Jorg Haider, the populist leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), whose declared aim is to smash the post-war grip on power enjoyed by Austria's two main parties. "The collapse of the coalition after less than one year is a clear signal that the system has ceased to work satisfactorily," said Klaus Faupel, a professor of political science at Salzburg university. "Many traditional supporters of the mainstream parties may look elsewhere: it could well play into Haider's hands."
The SPO and OVP have governed Austria, either singly or together, since the Second World War. In addition to political power, they have devised an elaborate system of patronage - dividing jobs and even flats along party lines. Over the past 10 years both parties have seen a steady erosion of their support as a disenchanted electorate has turned increasingly to the populist, xenophobic Mr Haider or, on the left, to the Green party.
In last October's general election the SPO's share of the vote sank to just 35 per cent while the OVP scored 28 per cent. Mr Haider, who took over as leader of the FPO in 1986 when it was standing at about 5 per cent, celebrated another triumph: a record 23 per cent.