Austria's political parties and their history

The founding period of today's political parties goes back to the second half of the 19th century. In 1873 only six percent of the entire population living in the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy were entitled to vote in the elections for the House of Representatives of the Imperial Assembly. All others, the equivalent of 94 percent of the population, were excluded from the political decision-making process and had to join various political movements evolving at the time to make their voices heard. The new political parties shared the fight against an elective franchise excluding all but a few; they provided a party organisation and political programmes. It eventually took until the First Republic for the universal, equal, direct and secret right to vote for both women and men to be introduced and for general elections to be held for the first time.

The Social Democrats

The first elections for the National Assembly in February 1919 were won by the Social Democrats. In March 1919, the Social Democrat Karl Renner entered a coalition with the Christian Social Party. Karl Renner became State Chancellor, Minister of Interiors and Minister of Education. In the First Republic, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party which was founded at the Hainfeld Party Congress at the turn of 1888/1889 under the decisive influence of the physician Viktor Adler introduced and implemented a socio-political programme which proved to be very successful at first on the federal level and later on particularly in Vienna.

The new social legislation introduced then and partly still in force until today included unemployment benefits, an eight-hour working day and a law regulating the workers' right to a paid holiday. Among the most important changes introduced by the Social Democrats in Vienna were public health care provisions, social services, education and housing. The housing projects implemented by the Social Democrats in Vienna between 1919 and 1934 opened up housing for approximately 220,000 people.

The government under State Chancellor Karl Renner, however, only lasted until June 1920. In the elections for the National Assembly in October 1920 the Christian Social Party became the strongest party. The Social Democratic Ministers left the government the same month and the party remained in opposition until the end of the First Republic. On 12 February 1934, the first day of the February Upraising and the outbreak of fights between socialist and conservative forces, the authoritarian government under Engelbert Dollfuß outlawed the Social Democratic Workers' Party. Vienna's mayor, Karl Seitz, was forced to resign the same day while Otto Bauer, the Social Democracy’s most important speaker, journalist and theorist, was forced to flee to Czechoslovakia.

The German Nationals

Originally part of the Liberals, the German Nationals, a pan-German movement, formed their own party with a strong emphasis on German national demands in their programme. As coalition partner of the Christian Social Party they had a certain political influence on the domestic level. Programmatically, the German Nationals were geared towards an electorate of petty bourgeois and small peasants with a strong nationalist character and organised in the "Großdeutsche Volkspartei" (Greater German People's Party) and the "Landbund für Österreich" (Rural Federation for Austria). They vehemently called for the annexation of Austria into Germany and the establishment of a German "Volksgemeinschaft" (people's community). The German Nationals were also associated with the Christian Social Party in the "Heimwehr", a paramilitary "home guard".

The Christian Social Party

After winning the elections for the National Assembly in October 1920, the Christian Social Party formed a government with the support of the German Nationals. Restoration of the state budget and the alleviation of poverty were still the central issues on the government’s agenda resulting in further social reforms. In May 1921 the government passed the "Angestelltengesetz" (Employment Law) regulating the rights of employees with regard to paid holidays, severance indemnity and retirement. Health insurance now also covered civil servants, agricultural and forestry workers, home workers and house maids. A new landlord and tenant law severely restricted the landlords’ right to cancel a contract and divided up rents into running costs, maintenance and actual rent.

The Christian Social Party was originally founded in 1891 after the successful merger of the small trade movement with the Catholic social reform movement. Prelate Ignaz Seipel, the party's chairman from 1921 to 1929, was the biggest opponent of the Social Democrat Otto Bauer. Serving as Federal Chancellor in three governments from 1922 to 1924, Seipel signed the Geneva Protocols in October 1922 thereby obtaining a loan by the League of Nations which put an end to extreme post war inflation rates and initiated economic recovery in Austria.

In May 1932 Engelbert Dollfuß of the Christian Social Party became the new Federal Chancellor. The "self-elimination of Parliament" in March 1933 meant the end of the First Republic's parliamentarian democracy. Chancellor Dollfuß then proceeded to establish an authoritarian state replacing the political parties by a government of the "Vaterländische Front (Fatherland Front). On 27 September 1934 the Christian Social Party declared its dissolution.

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