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Podcast: Austria 1986 (History Corner #3)

Successful candidate Kurt Waldheim. Photo: Ostinommis (CC ASA 4.0)

In this month’s entry to the History Corner, Mathew Nicolson, takes us back to Austria’s very controversial 1986 presidential election. This election saw an end to the centre-left Socialist Party’s unbroken 40-year run of successful presidential elections, while revelations surrounding candidate Kurt Waldheim forced Austrians to confront their past.

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Hello and welcome to another entry of the Europe Elects history corner.  After exploring two significant firsts in previous History Corners – the 1871 German election and the 1906 Russian election, both of which you can find on our podcast feed – we’re moving ahead in time this week to a somewhat less monumental but still, very important and noteworthy election: the 1986 Austrian presidential election.

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Spring, 1986: Europe reeled from the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster; Japanese Emperor Hirohito marked 60 years on the throne; British journalist John McCarthy had recently been kidnapped by the Islamic Jihad Organisation in Lebanon and French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir passed away at the age of 78.  And in Austria, voters prepared to participate in what would become one of the most controversial elections ever held in the country.

Austria has a parliamentary system but its elected presidency is not entirely ceremonial, having the power to appoint the Chancellor, Austria’s head of government; to dismiss governments; to veto bills under certain conditions and can also serve as commanders-in-chief of the Austrian military, although no president has ever made use of this power.  

Incumbent President Rudolf Kirchschläger had served two six-year terms from 1974 and was ineligible to run for a third term.  In this period, elections to the Austrian presidency, as with the national parliament, tended to be dominated by Austria’s two major parties: the centre-left Socialist Party and centre-right Austrian People’s Party.  The previous election in 1980 had provided a rare exception to this trend, with both major parties supporting Kirchschläger’s re-election against the right-wing Freedom Party.

As Kirchschläger’s term in office drew to a close, both parties sought candidates for the upcoming election.  The Socialist Party, who had backed every successful candidate since Austria’s first direct presidential election in 1951, nominated Kurt Steyrer, former Minister for Health and Environmental Protection.  The Austrian People’s Party endorsed a higher-profile candidate, former Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the United Nations between 1972 and 1981, Kurt Waldheim.  Waldheim had previously contested the presidency in 1971, losing to the Socialists’ Franz Jonas.

Two other candidates also contested the election.  Freedom Party member Otto Scrinzi, a former member of the Carinthian state parliament and previously a member of the Nazi Party who represented the far-right wing of the party, stood without his party’s formal backing or support.  The People’s Party leadership actively disowned Scrinzi, campaigning instead for Steyrer, but many Freedom Party officials and its former chairman Alexander Götz nevertheless endorsed Scrinzi’s candidacy in a very public display of the party’s internal divisions.

This was also the first presidential election to be contested by the Green Alternative, the former name of the modern day Austrian Green Party, which had been founded earlier in the year by a merger of the United Greens of Austria and Alternative List Austria.  The Greens nominated Freda Meissner-Blau, a prominent anti-nuclear activist and former member of the Socialist Party, who had quit over the government’s decision to build a hydro-electric plant on the Danube.  Meissner-Blau would be the first woman to ever contest an Austrian presidential election.

Although the Socialists had never before lost a presidential election, the 1986 election took place on unfavourable ground for them.  In a coalition for the past three years with the Freedom Party, the Socialist-led government accrued opposition to its economic and environmental policies.  It had also been hit by a number of scandals, ranging from the Freedom Party’s defence minister personally welcoming the return to Austria of a released war criminal, a financial scandal regarding state shareholdings in industry, arms sales to Iran and, perhaps worst of all, the revelation that Austrian wine included traces of anti-freeze.

The Peoples’ Party’s endorsement of a well-known and popular candidate in Waldheim added to the Socialists’ difficulties in retaining the presidency. In mid-1985, Steyrer polled 20 points behind Waldheim, pointing towards a historic defeat for the Socialist Party.  This gap would narrow as the campaign entered 1986 but Waldheim maintained a consistent lead.

However, revelations began to emerge during the campaign which would shape the course of this election and ensure its infamous place in Austrian history.  Investigative journalist Alfred Worm revealed that Waldheim’s account of his life during the Second World War in his recently-published biography contained multiple omissions.  Waldheim had always claimed to have been medically discharged in 1942 and spent the rest of the war studying law at the University of Vienna, insisting he had had no complicity in atrocities and war crimes committed by the Nazi regime.  

As the campaign ensued, Waldheim began to face specific accusations about his wartime record.  In March, the World Jewish Congress claimed he had lied about his service in the mounted corps of the SA – the Nazi paramilitary wing – and that he had also served as an officer in Yugoslavia and Greece between 1942 and 1944, serving under General Alexander Löhr, a military figure executed in 1947 for war crimes.  Weeks later, the World Jewish Congress provided further allegations that directly implicated Waldheim in mass murders committed during the war, including the deportation of 40,000 Greek Jews to death camps.

Waldheim acknowledged his deceit over aspects of his past but maintained innocence against any personal complicity in war crimes – though would later make comments about having merely done his duty.  Multiple investigations were set up during the election period, including an international committee of historians appointed by the Austrian government and by the United States Justice Department, though these would not report until after the election was held.

The revelations provoked discussions about Austria’s wartime record and the legacy of Nazism in the country.  Unlike Germany, Austria had never undergone a process of ‘denazification’ and the same sense of collective guilt for wartime atrocities and the Nazi genocides had never developed to the same extent.  It was a commonly-held view that Austria had been another victim of the Nazi regime rather than a perpetrator with shared complicity in its crimes.  

Waldheim and much of the People’s Party responded by condemning outside interference into Austria’s election and encouraged voters to vote for Waldheim as a declaration of sovereignty. One slogan stated, “We Austrians elect whomsoever we want.”  The Waldheim campaign was also criticised for tacitly encouraging xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and the campaign saw an increase in racist incidents.  Meanwhile, Chancellor Fred Sinowatz, a member of the Socialist Party, fiercely opposed Waldheim’s candidacy.

In this way, the controversy around Waldheim’s candidacy produced a backlash which actually benefited his campaign, with many Austrians rejecting the allegations – opinion polls held during the campaign found only between 10% and 16% believed the allegations had substance. 

When the first round of voting was held, Waldheim achieved the best result for any People’s Party-backed presidential candidate in Austrian history, falling just short of a first-round majority with 49.6%, triggering a second round run-off.  The Socialists’ Kurt Steyrer finished a fair distance behind, bearing the brunt of his government’s unpopularity with 43.7%, the second lowest vote share ever returned by a Socialist candidate in the first round.  Turnout was 89.5%, only down slightly from 91.6% in the 1980 election.

Waldheim won a first-round majority in five of Austria’s nine states, something Steyrer only accomplished in Vienna alongside pluralities in Burgenland and Carinthia.  Waldheim gained particular support from Austria’s farming and rural sectors.  Freda Meissner-Blau secured what was then the best Green result at a federal level with 5.5%, buoyed by well-educated, young and especially female voters, providing a springboard for the party at the next national parliament election where the Greens would win their first seats.  Otto Scrinzi came last with a disappointing 1.2% of the vote.

The second round, held one month later, consolidated these numbers.  Steyrer was unable to gain any momentum against Waldheim even amid such dramatic accusations, losing to him with 46% to 54%.  This was not only the first time a People’s Party-backed candidate had ever won an Austrian presidential election; Waldheim’s victory was also the third-largest winning margin out of the eight presidential elections held up to that date.  

Once the results were in, Chancellor Sinowatz and a handful of other Socialist members of the government announced their resignations in reflection of their party’s poor results and out of a refusal to work with Waldheim.  The Government itself, which also included the Freedom Party, would continue until legislative elections were held at the end of the year.

The United States Department of Justice study reported in 1987 and found that Waldheim had ‘assisted or otherwise participated’ in persecutions.  In response, the US – along with multiple other countries – barred him from entry, the first time such action had ever been taken against a sitting head of state.  His only state visits would be to the Vatican, where he visited twice, and to a handful of Arab countries, notably Jordan.  He would later express regret that his ‘global experience’ as UN Secretary-General could not be utilised as Austria’s President.

In 1988, the Austrian Government commission of historians concluded Waldheim could not be proven of any personal complicity in Nazi war crimes but found he had been in ‘direct proximity to criminal actions’ with knowledge of atrocities that he failed to take action against.  Waldheim and the People’s Party insisted these findings exonerated Waldheim and justified his continuation in office.

Waldheim remained controversial throughout his presidency and faced many demands to resign, especially from within the Socialist Party – although Sinowatz’s successor as Chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, refused to join these calls, maintaining that Waldheim had been democratically elected.  Waldheim would not seek a second term in 1992 and subsequently retired from public life, leaving a complicated legacy in Austria.  Upon Waldheim’s death in 2007, Austria’s then-president Heinz Fischer described him as a ‘Great Austrian’ who became the ‘projection screen for a guilty conscience linked to the Nazi period,’ arguing his lifetime deserved to be seen ‘as a whole.’  

The 1986 Austrian presidential election brought an end to Austria’s 40-year unbroken run of Socialist presidents and played an unexpectedly pivotal role in forcing the country to confront its past, challenging narratives around its role and complicity in Nazi crimes.  The election and Waldheim’s presidency became a locus for these debates, which continue to the present day.

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