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Bernard Owen on effects of electoral systems

Part II: How proportional representation allowed neo-Nazis to enter the government of Austria

Bernard Owen, November 2008

The Polish-language version of this page (click) - polska wersja tej strony

Bernard Owen is the head of the Centre for the Comparative Studies of Elections (CERSA) in Paris, and program director at IPAG-Paris II, a leading French institute specialized in administrative law.

Professor Owen participated in more than fourty international electoral assistance and observation missions, reviewed or helped draft electoral laws of several nations, and participated in over fourty international meetings and research conferences concerning elections. Every year, he organizes a conference on electoral matters in the French Senate.

The research of Professor Owen explains the role played by proportional representation in several political disasters that hit various European nations at different points in time.

This is the second in a series of short talks by Bernard Owen about effects of proportional representation.

In this series:

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Listen to the talk:

It started with the election of Kurt Waldheim in 1985. He was nominated as a candidate for the Catholic party.

In Austria the two main parties, Catholic and socialist, are really embedded into the countryside. They have many ramifications. And if you are born in a socialist family, you go socialist sporting activities, you even die in a socialist cemetery, all your way through you are followed by the same ideology. The Catholics are in a similar situation.

But in 1985 the Catholics nominated for the presidential election someone who seemed very interesting, Kurt Waldheim, who had been the head for about 10 years of the United Nations. He was a good candidate. Unfortunately, a year before, in the Wall Street Journal, and in a number of American newspapers, there had been accusations against Austria, that Austria had been giving to the Soviet Union military secrets from the United States. Of course, true or not, this created an uproar in Austria, and all the Austrian newspapers were really mad at the American newspapers for saying that they were traitors to the Western ideals.

Just a year later Kurt Waldheim is nominated as the Catholic candidate, and this was a good idea from the Catholics' point of view. But the World Jewish Congress, which is not representative of the whole Jewish population, far from it, accused Kurt Waldheim of having, before the 1939 war, been a member of riding school, which was Nazi oriented, and, during the war, as all Austrians, he was obliged to go into the German army, and he was in Greece when there were supposed to be some atrocities, which were not really proven, but he was there, but still, a lot of noise was made about it.

And this had the Austrians react against what had been an attack coming from the outside.

This was interesting because we had those two main parties who reach somewhere around 40-45% of the votes, and there was a small liberal party, which would reach between 5 and 10% of the votes. That was all right, but the stance of the World Jewish Congress got together everyone who was antisemitic in Austria, and a small party is easily taken over by a minority. And that is what happened to the Liberal Party. Jörg Haider took over the Liberal Party, which became a neo-Nazi party.

In Austria, in order to govern, one of the main parties has to have a coalition with a smaller party. And at that time the Socialists had in their coalition the Liberal Party, which was no longer liberal, it was now a Nazi party. So they could not make up a government as they wished to, they decided to do what is called now an "elephant's government" in Austria, that is, a great coalition government, Catholics and socialists. Everybody was quite happy, and most people liked the idea. Newspapers liked it, they said "they are now together to work for the common good, and things are fine".

Well, things were fine, except that however good a government may be, there are always people who will want to vote against it. And when you have the left and the right together in government, the party affiliation goes down, because real Catholics are not happy to see in the government their candidates with the socialists, and the socialists have the same reaction.

So party affiliation goes down, and when the next election comes around, which happened in Austria, suddenly the Liberal Party, which had become neo-Nazi, suddenly sprung up and doubled its vote. It was the structure for the vote against the government. And people always forget that. They say "it is ideology that counts, people are becoming Nazi". No, it is not that at all. It is just that the government, however good it may be, will raise concerns in some people's minds, and they will want to vote against it. And that is what happened in Austria.

And in the third election, that happened afterwards, the neo-Nazi party had exactly the same number of votes as the Catholics, and the Socialists have gone down. So the only way to deal with this was to have a coalition between the Catholics and the neo-Nazis. Of course, the European Union was very much against that, they said "the Austrians are getting Nazi-oriented", one of the members even refused to shake hands with the Austrian ambassador.

No, it had nothing to do with ideology, it was just that the welcome structure for the vote against the government, was only the Nazi, ex-liberal party. And what happened was very interesting, because at the next elections, when the two, Catholics and neo-Nazis were in power, the neo-Nazi party lost its position of the welcome structure for the vote against and from 25% of the votes (I believe) went down to 10%.

The vote was not ideological. And that is the thing that people usually do not know, even commentators on the radio, television and the press or even researchers look at ideology. Ideology has not got the importance that people usually believe it has.

In this series:

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Let us discuss electoral systems - zapraszam do dyskusji o systemach wyborczych by skubi December 14, 2008, 02:19:06 AM

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