Spindelegger: Defeated by tax reform

Former Finance Minister Michael Spindelegger resigned on Tuesday after eight months in the role, over differences within the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) over how to overhaul Austria's tax system and reduce its debt. What will his legacy be?

Spindelegger: Defeated by tax reform
Michael Spindelegger. Photo: APA/Schlager

Spindelegger also stepped down as Austria's vice chancellor and head of the ÖVP, the junior partner in Austria’s governing coalition.

At a surprise news conference, Spindelegger said he resigned due to a lack of support from his own party. "When there is no cohesion, it is time to hand over the reins," he told reporters.

Some ÖVP members have backed calls for tax cuts from its coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats.

Instead of cutting taxes, Austria should focus on cutting its debt, which is expected to reach about 80% of gross domestic product this year, Spindelegger said.

"The Austrian way must be oriented toward Berlin and not toward Athens," he said.

However, Gerald John of Der Standard newspaper writes that what Spindelegger didn’t understand is that no one wants to hear about the looming menace of national debt, and the need for savings and belt-tightening – what they want to hear is when their income tax is going to be reduced.

Tax reform was Spindelegger's stumbling block, and the issue that made him so unpopular, writes John.  

For many within the coalition a tax cut is seen as a way to woo voters and ensure success in the next elections (2018), as well as a way to boost the economy by giving workers more spending power.

But Spindelegger always maintained that this was the wrong approach.

"New debts are irresponsible towards the next generation, and I don’t want to be a part of that," he said in his parting words.

The Social Democrats want to introduce taxes on inheritance and a "millionaires tax" on the super rich – an idea Spindelegger rejected as a "drop in the ocean".

He had been a target of criticism from within his own party even before the debate over taxes. He has been a "dead man walking for many months," said political commentator Peter Plaikner.

Voters expect politicians to solve problems, not to give constant warnings that everything is going down the drain. A senior ÖVP figure referred to Spindelegger as a “Cassandra” – but only time will tell if he was actually the voice of reason.

Spindelegger was criticized for his inability to assert his policies and for some of his cabinet choices when building the government. He was viewed by some as too conservative even for the centre-right ÖVP.

With his wife, Margit. Photo: APA/Hochmuth

Many politicians from both sides of the government were surprised by Spindelegger's resignation, but seemed certain that the coalition would be able to overcome the loss of one of its party's leaders.

The day after his resignation Spindelegger had an “impromptu interview” with a sports editor in the changing room of a well-known Vienna fitness club. The 54-year-old was described as “looking 15 years younger” and “beaming”.

"It's also about having some dignity in life, I feel wonderful," Spindelegger said. His immediate plan was to clear his office and fly to Luxembourg, where his wife works – and after that – no long term plans as yet.  

Good luck to his successor as ÖVP chairman, Reinhold Mitterlehner. Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung commented that whoever takes over the ÖVP “is on a suicide mission and will die a quick political death.”

Editor's Note: The Local's Austrian of the Week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Austrian of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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Is Austria’s Freedom Party a ‘far-right’ party?

As more far-right parties enter power across Europe, we take a closer look at the Freedom Party of Austria.

Is Austria's Freedom Party a 'far-right' party?

On Sunday September 25th, the Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ) came second in the Tyrolean state elections. On the same day, the far right Brothers of Italy party won the national election in neighbouring Italy.

The Brothers of Italy win marks the first time a far right party has been elected into power in Italy since World War II. And in Austria, although the FPÖ didn’t win the Tyrolean vote, their gain came at a loss for the Greens – a typically popular party in Tyrol’s capital, Innsbruck.

This has worried some political commentators, even though the governing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in Tyrol has vowed not to form a coalition with the FPÖ

So is the FPÖ actually a far right party? And if so, why?

READ ALSO: Five of the biggest challenges facing Austria right now

What is a far right party?

Right-wing politics typically supports traditional values or returning things to how they were in the past, reports the UK’s Evening Standard

But the definition of a far right party can vary and even be split into two camps.

For some, the term refers to fascist or neo-Nazi political parties, which are authoritarian, ultra-nationalist, and normally openly racist, misogynistic and homophobic.

The far right can also include other parties that sit to the right of a country’s established centre-right. Examples in Europe include France’s National Rally, UKIP in the UK, Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany or the Danish People’s Party. 

Cas Mudde, the influential Dutch politics professor and author of The Far Right Today, says the far right is split into two subgroups – the “extreme right” and the “radical right”.

Mudde argues that the “extreme right” rejects the essence of democracy (such as popular sovereignty and majority rule). Whereas the “radical right” accepts the democratic system but is opposed to fundamental elements of liberal democracy, such as minority rights, the rule of law and the separation of powers.

FOR MEMBERS: QUIZ: Would you pass the Austrian citizenship politics and history test?

What is the background of the FPÖ?

The FPÖ was founded in 1956 as a “Germanic national liberal party with close associations to the Nazis”, and the party’s first two chairmen (Anton Reinthaller and Friedrich Peter) were former SS officers, reports Deutsche Welle.

The party started out as far right before moving towards the centre in the following decades. But in 1986 it moved back towards the far right and adopted an anti-elite, populist political stance.

The FPÖ first entered the Austrian Federal Government in 2000 after then-FPÖ leader Jörg Haider (son of Austrian Nazi Party members) formed a coalition government with the ÖVP. 

This was the first time a party with Nazi origins became part of a European government since the end of the Second World War. It caused outrage across Europe – even resulting in EU sanctions.

Haider then stepped down as head of the FPÖ in February 2000 but the party remained in the federal coalition until 2006.

After leaving the FPÖ, Haider went on to form another party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), but he died in a car crash just 13 days after the 2008 elections.

In 2017, the FPÖ once again entered into a coalition government with the ÖVP, and FPÖ leader Heinz Christian-Strache (of Ibizagate fame – more on that below) became the Vice-Chancellor of Austria.

Once again though, the coalition would be short-lived.

READ MORE: ‘I feel ripped off’: What it’s really like living in Austria right now

What is the recent controversy surrounding the FPÖ in Austria?

The FPÖ’s Strache had a spectacular fall from grace in 2019 in an episode that became known as “Ibizagate”.

The scandal can be traced back to a meeting in 2017 on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza between Strache (who was then leader of the FPÖ) and a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Strache was filmed promising the woman state contracts in exchange for helping his party to campaign for elections on an anti-migration, anti-Islam plank.

Strache also discussed the possibility of the woman buying Austria’s most-read tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, and making its editorial line more pro-FPÖ.

He did not know the meeting was a sting and that he was being filmed.

The video surfaced in German media in May 2019 and led to the collapse of the FPÖ-ÖVP coalition government. As well as marked the beginning of the end of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s political career.

Strache was later convicted of corruption and given a 15-month suspended jail sentence. In July 2022, Strache was acquitted on further corruption charges.

BACKGROUND: ‘Ibizagate’: What you need to know about the Austrian political corruption scandal

Does the FPÖ have fascist elements?

An article in Time describes fascism as “a movement that promotes the idea of a forcibly monolithic, regimented nation under the control of an autocratic ruler”.

A quick online search about the FPÖ mostly brings up descriptions including right-wing, populist and national conservative. But there are some alarming stories too.

For example, in 2019, the party published a poem in the town of Braunau (where Adolf Hitler was born), which warned against cultural mixing in Austria and compared immigrants to rats.

An Austrian study also found that the profile of FPÖ voters has hardly changed over the years, stating: “The FPÖ performs above average among men, younger people, workers and people with a lower level of education.” 

FOR MEMBERS: Austrian presidential elections: What exactly does the president do?

What are the FPÖ’s far right policies?

The FPÖ official website states (in English): “We are committed to Austria’s right to self-determination and to preserving and protecting our view of mankind and society that has matured in our traditions and in our history.”

“Freedom” is listed as the first priority in the party’s policies. In second place is “protecting our homeland of Austria, our national identity and autonomy”.

The party manifesto also states: “Austria is not a country of immigration. This is why we pursue a family policy centred around births.”

Other FPÖ policies focus on a free constitutional state, a market economy, social justice and Austria’s right to self-determination.

The FPÖ has also been a fierce opponent of Covid-19 restrictions in Austria and appeared at many protests that took place, especially in Vienna.

So are they far right?

Yes, the FPÖ fits the profile of a far right political party.

When considering Mudde’s definitions of “extreme right” and “far right”, the FPÖ falls in the latter category.

However, the party was founded on some elements of “extreme right”, and there have been glimpses of that ideology in recent years.