No Austrian government, either

It’s tough forming governments in Central Europe. I commented the other day on the agreement for a grand coalition in Germany, which – assuming it’s approved by the Social Democrat membership – will result in a new government taking office almost three months after the election. But Austria seems to be doing even worse.

Austria voted the week after Germany, on 29 September. The result was largely as expected: the two parties forming the incumbent grand coalition, the Social Democrats (centre-left) and People’s Party (centre-right), both lost support but continued to command a narrow majority of both votes and seats. Everyone expected that they would reassemble their coalition.

And indeed they probably still will, but they’re taking their time about it.

There’s a similarity with Germany in that in each case the junior partner is trying to get its way more on economic policy. In Germany that was the centre-left, arguing (with a good deal of success) for less austerity; in Austria it’s the centre-right, arguing for more austerity.

The Social Democrats are not happy with the idea. Reuters reports that they have “shown little appetite for belt-tightening that would arouse opposition in a country accustomed to high social spending.” But People’s Party leader Michael Spindelegger has asked the president, Heinz Fischer, to help mediate the talks in the hope of achieving a breakthrough.

His Social Democrat counterpart, chancellor Werner Faymann, seemed more optimistic, reportedly saying “there are no outstanding issues that cannot be solved” and anticipating the formation of a government before Christmas.

The difference between the two countries is that in Germany it was a wholly new coalition being assembled, whereas in Austria the two major parties have been in coalition (with one short break) for about seven years. Their relationship has evidently not been harmonious enough to stop Spindelegger from engaging in some good old-fashioned brinkmanship.

The other thing to remember is that the major parties in Germany still dominate the political field. In September they won about two-thirds of the vote between them. But in Austria they are both in decline and clinging to a bare majority (50.9%): the grand coalition is not popular. Hence the desperate manoeuvring for advantage on both sides.

But neither has much in the way of other options. Faymann has rejected the idea of fresh elections, while Spindelegger has “dismissed speculation he could end the talks and try to form a centre-right government instead.”

So it’s still likely that some sort of deal will be reached, and the grand coalition will stumble on – with or without more austerity – for another five years.

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