318. Airgram From the Embassy in Austria to the Department of State0

G–11. Ref: Embassy’s Airgram No. G–398.1 Subj: Austrian Political Scene.

[Page 809]

Austria’s government crisis has finally been resolved in its tenth week, longest period of cabinet building since 1945. Raab III regime takes office this week. Far from representing an improvement of situation which existed before May 10 election, result is a cabinet more evenly divided than before between the two major parties and with “proporz” system of party patronage and influence on public and private endeavor more than ever firmly locked into Austrian life. As squabble over formation of new government continued week after week, both parties abandoned all pretense of negotiating to effectuate high principles proclaimed during electoral campaign, and party talks degenerated into unseemly scramble on part of individual figures of both parties for jobs and influence.

People’s Party complacency was rudely shattered by election results, and party during ensuing negotiations all but emulated fate of Holmes’ one-horse shay. Party’s internal divisions were visible to all throughout negotiations and individual feuds were active. Chancellor Raab was on numerous occasions during coalition talks publicly rebuffed by his own party, and his tactical concept of negotiations was almost entirely rejected by his followers. He was dissuaded from his initial impulse to resign immediately following elections, his gambit to offer Finance Ministry to Socialists was voted down unanimously after he had already made it public, and he was forced to make more concessions on administration of nationalized industries than he wished. Embassy understands that in party leadership meeting yesterday he again insisted that correct course would have been to give up Finance Ministry. However, when it became apparent his party was to retain Chancellorship, he was unwilling allow another to take his place and, faltering though his leadership now is, there is as yet no one in his party strong enough to challenge him directly. He heads government, therefore, with greatly diminished prestige and with many of his followers openly wishing he would retire. He is able to remain primarily because party divisions and rivalries make choice of generally acceptable successor an extremely difficult task. Arab’s physical appearance continues to cause widespread speculation over his health. Always phlegmatic and taciturn, he is reportedly now more mistrustful than ever of those around him, and his stubbornness does not decrease with age. Reform of People’s Party and thoroughgoing overhaul of its organization is badly overdue. There is much talk about this among provincial leaders of party and younger business and industrial elements, but members of former group do not stay in Vienna long enough at a time to be able to carry out a sustained cleanup and latter group openly despair of accomplishing much with Raab still at party helm. In short, People’s Party is suffering from severe malaise. It urgently needs new concepts and new leadership, but either still seems some distance in future. Only bright [Page 810] spot in this dark picture is the nomination for the post of Minister of Agriculture of Eduard Hermann, a man of excellent reputation whose name is invariably mentioned when possibilities for the chancellorship are discussed. His nomination, of course, gives recognition to the important role of the Peasant’s League (Bauernbund) as the principal supplier of votes for the People’s Party, and his inclusion in the Cabinet is a definite plus.

In contrast to People’s Party, Socialist Party has vigorous and dynamic leadership in Pittermann, and Socialist side of government negotiations was conducted with great skill. People’s Party was kept continuously off balance through hard-driving but fast-shifting tactics of Socialist negotiators. Socialists cleverly declined consistently to be pinned down on their ultimate negotiating aims. While proclaiming piously their belief in continued coalition cooperation and simultaneously demanding that their plurality in popular vote be recognized by absolute equality in distribution of government posts, they worked steadily for expansion of Socialist influence and an improved tactical position within coalition administration. Butter would not melt in their mouths regarding necessity for continuance of coalition, but some of their leaders privately admit their determination to move forward with view to possible full take-over of government after next election. Socialists waged skillful psychological warfare against Raab personally and against People’s Party throughout negotiations which, while not altogether admirable in some of its aspects, was eminently successful. As a result, a disorganized People’s Party probably conceded more to Socialist electoral gains than would have been necessary had they had clear or cohesive goals of their own.

This is not to say that Austrian Socialist Party is a monolithic structure. There are differences among individuals and certainly divergences of opinion over party philosophy. However, Socialists have been very successful in settling their differences behind closed doors, and divergent viewpoints are not paraded before the public, as are People’s Party divisions and animosities. While Pittermann is clearly dominant figure in his party at present, he is by no means dictator and he cannot impose his views at will. There is general agreement among qualified observers that Waldbrunner has lost prestige and position within his party, but he is still a force not to be discounted, and he maintains a loyal following among those more ideologically minded Socialists who are not happy with Pittermann’s recasting of the party in a bourgeois direction. The effect of Waldbrunner’s declining power on prospects for settlement of such outstanding issues in Austro-American relations as the Vienna Memorandum remains to be seen. In that connection, Kreisky’s increased influence as head of new Foreign Ministry with independent status should be a positive factor. Kreisky, incidentally, belongs to a [Page 811] loosely organized inner circle group consisting of himself, Olah, Slavik, Probst, and Broda. These men are more and more concerting their ideas and by force of their organized intellect having an increased say in the direction their party should take. Youthful and generally moderate Socialists, they typify the kind of vigorous new leadership which People’s Party so badly needs.

Fact of Socialist differences was evidenced in party nomination of Josef Afritsch to succeed Helmer as Interior Minister. Helmer had hoped until the last to remain in Cabinet and observers generally believed he would be able to hold on. However, in pursuance Socialist leadership’s determination ruthlessly enforce Generationswechsel (so apparent in Parliamentary campaign in May), Central Secretary Probst and others contrived Helmer’s ouster at yesterday’s party meeting. Probst was, however, then not able hoist himself into Ministry as he would have liked, and several other candidates killed one another off. Resulting compromise produced Afritsch, an obscure and amiable City Councilor of Vienna who is a gardener by vocation and whose unforeseen choice was a surprise to Socialists themselves.

President Schaerf can be said to have enhanced his own prestige and that of presidency through role he played in negotiations which are generally agreed locally to have been most difficult in post-war Austrian history. Although a long–time Socialist and former leader of his party, he maintained an impartial and objective position throughout negotiations. His role was appreciated and praised by both parties. He intervened subtly to restore order at particularly acrimonious stages of negotiations and exercised his influence discreetly to ensure continuance of coalition in which he believes strongly.

Whether coalition system which served Austria so well during occupation period and immediately thereafter will long continue is certainly debatable at this point. Elections, however, indicated continuing belief in coalition form of government on part of general public, and both parties presently patently fearful of going it alone. It is probably true that Austria, with its deeply held memories of 1934 civil war and authoritarian regime which followed is not yet ready for parliamentary government in English sense. However, shabbiness of current political picture here is convincingly portrayed through a remark attributed yesterday to Defense Minister Graf. When asked his opinion of the new government, Graf smiled wryly and responded, “Well, it’s better to be in than out.”

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 763.00/7–1759. Confidential. Drafted by Bennett in coordination with Matthews on July 15. Repeated to Salzburg.
  2. Dated June 2, G–398 emphasized the difficulties in forming a coalition government in view of the extremely close results of the May 10 balloting. (Ibid., 763.00/6–259) The election results were as follows: People’s Party—79 seats in parliament (82 in 1956 election); Socialists—78 seats (74 in 1956 election); Liberals—8 seats (6 in 1956 election); Communists—0 seats (3 in 1956 election).