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09VIENNA216 2009-02-25 14:07:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Vienna
Cable title:  

AUSTRIA: CHARISMATIC GOVERNOR DOMINATES SALZBURG

Tags:   PGOV PREL AU 
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1. (U) Summary: Gabi Burgstaller, the charismatic governor of
Salzburg Province, is expected to lead the Social Democrats
(SPO) to a first place finish in the March 1 provincial
elections. After the vote, Burgstaller is likely to renew
the SPO's alliance with the conservative People's Party
(OVP), projected to finish second, Salzburg contacts told us.
While the vast majority of municipal mayors in the province
are OVP, party leaders from across the political spectrum say
Burgstaller's popularity trumps party loyalty at the
provincial level. The far right Freedom Party (FPO) is
expected to finish third with a higher vote total than in the
previous elections, reflecting a national resurgence. End
Summary.

Charismatic Governor Dominates Race


--------------------------





2. (U) Polchief and Pol FSN traveled to Salzburg February
18-20 to discuss the provincial elections. Our contacts
across the political spectrum cited the overwhelming
popularity of Governor Burgstaller (SPO) as the dominant
factor in the campaign. Burgstaller, a 45-year-old attorney,
was first elected governor in 2004, garnering an impressive
45 percent of the vote in a crowded field. Her victory
displaced the OVP from the Governor's Office, which it had
occupied uninterrupted since the end of World War II.
Burgstaller has said she expects the SPO to receive about 40
percent of the vote this time, and has pledged to resign from
the provincial party leadership if the SPO fails to finish in
first place. Both the polls, which predict SPO will lead the
pack with about 43 percent, and our contacts indicate she has
little to worry about.



3. (SBU) Our contacts also agreed that voters will be swayed
by personalities, not issues. This is a source of
frustration for the OVP, which is projected to finish second
with about 39 percent. Anton Santner, OVP provincial party
manager, told us the OVP fell to Burgstaller in 2004 because
its top candidate, incumbent Governor Franz Schausberger,
lacked public appeal. Since then, the party has recovered to
a certain extent, but will not be able to unseat Burgstaller
under the leadership of top candidate Wilfried Haslauer, the
rather lackluster son of a longstanding Salzburg governor of
the same name, he said. Though Haslauer is bright and highly
qualified, he comes across as aloof and cannot compete with
Burgstaller on TV or in front of a crowd, he said.

OVP Dominates at Municipal Level


--------------------------





4. (U) Christian Struber, head of an OVP district
organization, told us Salzburg remains an essentially
conservative province, noting that 89 out of 119 municipal
mayors are OVP. That is not expected to change; a
significant number of OVP mayors are running unopposed, and
many others are far ahead in the polls. The mayors are
directly elected, which means voters can cast ballots for an
OVP mayor, and then vote SPO for the provincial legislature.
Struber argued that the numbers prove that many of them are
doing just that, as Burgstaller's popularity trumps OVP party
loyalty. Christian Stoeckl, OVP mayor of Hallein, observed
to us that the once clear ideological distinctions between
the SPO and OVP have faded during the last half century as
the two parties have dominated Austrian politics. As a
result, voters in Salzburg and across Austria are making
judgments based on the personalities of individual
candidates.



5. (U) SPO provincial party manager Uwe Hoefferer
acknowledged that the SPO owes its success in Salzburg to
Burgstaller's charisma. He argued that it is only natural
for voters to respond to a "genuine, down to earth"
candidate. But Burgstaller can govern as well as she can
campaign; if she couldn't, the voters would have abandoned
her after five years in office, he said.

New "Grand Coalition" Expected


--------------------------





6. (U) The SPO and OVP currently form a "Grand Coalition"
government in Salzburg, and are expected to renew their
alliance after the March 1 vote. The OVP has been warning of
a possible coalition between the SPO and the far right FPO --
OVP campaign posters urge voters to back the OVP in order to
prevent such an outcome. But this is considered highly
unlikely. The OVP's Santner laughed when we asked him if he
believed the SPO would team up with the FPO. "Look, it's a

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campaign," he said. "We're using that idea to mobilize
voters." Hoefferer, of the SPO, noted that polls indicate
that 60 percent of voters favor an SPO-OVP coalition, far
more than back any other option.

FPO On Rise, Greens, BZO Remain Weak


--------------------------





7. (U) The FPO is expected to finish third, with as high as
13 percent, up from 9 percent in 2004, reflecting a
nationwide resurgence fueled by young voters (Austria in 2007
lowered the voting age to 16) and concerns about integration.
The BZO, the FPO split-off party founded by the late Jorg
Haider, is expected to garner only 2-3 percent of the vote,
short of the requirement to enter parliament. Top BZO
candidate Markus Fauland was, nevertheless, optimistic,
predicting to us that the party would draw 5 percent and earn
two legislative seats. The Green party is expected to garner
about 7 percent. Green provincial MP Heidi Reiter was
downbeat, telling us the media have been ignoring the Green
campaign, and that voters are reluctant to embrace Green
issues in difficult economic times.

Comment: A Rising Political Talent


--------------------------





8. (C) Burgstaller is a rising political talent. Few, if
any, Austrian politicians can match her ability to connect
with voters. She will almost certainly lead her party to
another Grand Coalition with the OVP. The OVP remains strong
at the municipal level, and the coalition partners get along
well in the province. Burgstaller has little reason to snub
the SPO's traditional partner in favor of the controversial,
xenophobic FPO. Nevertheless, an improved performance by the
FPO in Salzburg and other provinces holding elections this
year could prove to be a disturbing trend, particularly if
the economic crisis heightens tensions over integration.
KILNER