Schüssel was secretary of the parliamentary Austrian People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei—ÖVP) from 1968 to 1975. He served as general secretary of the Österreichische Wirtschaftsbund (Austrian Economic Federation), which is a constituent organization of the ÖVP, from 1975 until April 1991. On 24 April 1989, Schüssel became federal minister for economic affairs in the coalition government formed by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs—SPÖ) and the ÖVP under Chancellor Dr. Franz Vranitzky. At the 30th annual congress of the ÖVP on 22 April 1995, Schüssel was elected the party's leader. On 4 May of the same year he was sworn in as vice chancellor and federal minister for foreign affairs in the Vranitzky cabinet. He continued to hold these positions in the Vranitzky cabinet after the general elections in December 1995. Beginning 28 January 1997, Schüssel functioned as vice chancellor and federal minister for foreign affairs to Federal Chancellor Viktor Klima. By 1 July 1998, Schüssel was serving as president-in-office of the Council of the European Union (EU).
Upon assuming the rotating presidency of the EU, Schüssel called for a transition period of up to 10 years before a new member country's citizens would be allowed to live and work anywhere in the EU community. He claimed it was Austria's goal to maintain gradual access to the labor markets, reflecting general Austrian sentiment opposing EU enlargement.
In Austria's October 1999 elections, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) tied Schüssel's People's Party (ÖVP) for second place, with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) taking the lead. The prospect of a coalition government between the three parties created a national and international frenzy as the FPÖ's leader, Jorg Haider, had in the past expressed support for Nazi ideology. Schüssel, awaiting his appointment to the chancellery, vowed to take his party into opposition. President Thomas Klestil made it clear he was unhappy at the prospect of a government that included the FPÖ, but the results of the October 1999 elections left him with no choice but to swear it in. Consequently, Schüssel was sworn in as federal chancellor on 4 February 2000 alongside his controversial coalition partner, Jorg Haider.