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Consociationalism, Party Organization and Adaptation: the Austrian Party System and the Challenge of Post-Industrialism

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:24 authored by Chan, Oliver

In October 1999, the political situation of the Second Republic of Austria changed with the centre-right Osterreichische Volkspartei (Austrian Peoples Party, OVP) coming in second place in the general elections for the Nationalrat (National Assembly) to the farright, populist Freiheitlische Partei Osterreichs (Freedom Party of Austria, FPO), resulting in an FPO-OVP coalition government. This outcome was the culmination of a gradual decline in the vote share for the centre-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Osterreichs (Social Democratic Party of Austria, SPO) and the OVP which began with the 1986 general elections. This situation was unprecedented in not only post-war Austria, but also in post-war Europe. Nowhere else had the far-right achieved such impressive electoral successes, let alone been in government. Why was it possible for a new far-right party to be so electorally successful in Austria? This thesis joins a growing body of literature that looks inside party organisations to understand parties' relative capacities to respond to changes in their environment. It demonstrates that, at least in one case, it is unwise to assume that parties behave like unitary actors that rationally seek electoral goals. This is because institutional rules inside parties privilege some interests in internal power games, shaping whether and how the party responds to changes in the composition of interests in the electorate. The response of the Austrian party system to the 'post-industrial' transformation of Austrian society provides a good opportunity to observe the impact of organisation on party adaptation to environmental change. The post-war 'consociational' organisation of the OVP and the SPO entrenched the power of economic interest groups--labour unions, business associations and farmers--within each party organisation and, through them, in policymaking. This so-called Proporz system provided a reasonable reflection of the composition of social interests in post-war society. It also responded to the challenges to Austrian democracy in the post-war environment. However, it proved extremely rigid in the face of changing Austrian society. Institutional rigidity within the post-war Austrian party system proved ill-suited to confront the challenges of post-industrial transformation. Social transformation in Austria was not unlike that which had occurred throughout all advanced industrial democracies. It undermined traditional class-mass constituencies, such as blue collar workers, farmers and small business, while creating a new and largely white collar pool of voters. Orthodox conceptions of party change would assume that parties adapt automatically to such changes in voter concerns. The SPO and OVP responded to these changes, at best, slow and half-heartedly. This provided an opportunity for the FPO to target with little competition. It was the entrenched economic interests within the SPO and OVP prevented these parties from offering a credible challenge to the FPO for these voters.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Political Science

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Leslie, John