Austria's coalition collapses after ÖVP walks out


AUSTRIA:AFTER 18 months of uneasy cohabitation, Austria's grand coalition government collapsed yesterday after a row triggered by Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

Austria's conservative People's Party (ÖVP) walked out of an administration brought to a standstill by disagreements on healthcare, reform, pensions, taxes and education.

The straw that broke the grand coalition's back, however, was a letter by Social Democrat (SPÖ) chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer to the best- selling Kronenzeitung tabloid that said Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty reflected a "widespread unease about the EU and its politics".

Mr Gusenbauer wrote that EU-critical sentiment was on the rise in Austria, too, and could be best tackled by ratifying future EU treaties by referendum. Although Austria has already ratified the Lisbon Treaty, Mr Gusenbauer suggested that if any changes were made to the text to help the Irish, then ratification should be put to the vote in Austria.

The ÖVP accused Mr Gusenbauer of a populist policy U-turn aimed at reversing the SPÖ's recent slide in opinion polls.

Yesterday Mr Gusenbauer gave in after months of political pressure and bowed out ahead of a snap poll, likely in September.

"Enough is enough," said Mr Wilhelm Molterer, ÖVP leader and finance minister in the grand coalition. "Good work is no longer possible in this government. The SPÖ is leaderless, directionless and has departed . . . from the common European perspective for our country."

Latest polls give the ÖVP 32 per cent support, a five-point lead over the SPÖ. But the last 18 months of political stalemate have sapped the two parties' strength while boosting the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which, at 20 per cent, has overtaken the Greens as Austria's third party.

Eight years after entering government with the FPÖ and triggering an EU diplomatic crisis, the ÖVP vowed yesterday not to let history repeat itself.

It will present itself to voters as the party of political stability and fiscal responsibility, anxious to continue with privatisation of state assets. It could try to win over the support of the Greens, if the party is not wooed by the SPÖ first.

The Social Democrats insist they have no interest in the FPÖ either, and are optimistic of reversing a series of local election defeats under their new leader, transport minister Werner Faymann.

He was the driving force behind the Kronenzeitung letter, which he co-signed, a move seen by political observers as an attempt to position the party closer to voters than the ÖVP, traditionally supported by business leaders.

Mr Faymann hopes that he can count on Austria's best-selling newspaper to back him during the upcoming snap election campaign.

Yesterday the SPÖ party board agreed a 12-point programme recognising "European unity" but formalising the promise of "referenda for future treaty changes that touch on Austria's basic interests".

"The Irish aren't to blame for the snap election. Anything could have brought down this unsteady government, but the Irish vote certainly was the trigger," said Mr Thomas Hofer, a Viennese political consultant.

Many political observers doubt if the SPÖ will succeed in making its new EU line a central election plank. The SPÖ is already weakened by its change of leadership and most people are more concerned with bread and butter issues than with the EU, said political scientist Prof Peter Gerlich.

"The people who are interested in the EU see the SPÖ's move as a stunt," he said, "a vague hypothetical proposal, made in a newspaper of ill repute."