Austrian Elections: Changes Ahead
Austrians are heading to the polls on October 15. It is already clear that this election will leave the small European country changed, not necessarily for the better. This has to do with the changed political landscape as well as the potential coalitions.
The political landscape
Austria’s political centre has tilted rightwards, like in many other European countries, mostly related to the migration crisis of 2015. The right-wing FPÖ, which in contrast to the German AfD has a long-standing tradition as a parliamentary party, led the polls for a whole year from July 2016 to 2017.
However, in May 2017, the Vice-Chancellor and Chairman of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Reinhold Mitterlehner stepped down due to loss of support within his own party. The “Chairman in-waiting”, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, took over. Although it came as a bit of surprise at this very moment, the move had been prepared for by Kurz and his praetorians in the Young People’s party for quite some time. Kurz then re-branded the ÖVP with an almost exclusive focus on himself (“Liste Kurz – die neue ÖVP”), secured himself wide-reaching powers within the notoriously hard to lead party, copy-pasted most of the right-wing migration policy platform of the FPÖ, and finished the surface by adopting some NEOS style and language, to make it look nicer. So far, it seems to have worked for the ÖVP. Even though no other party in the EU has been longer in power continuously as the ÖVP (in government since January 1987), citizens seem to buy the argument Kurz has re-newed the party, and it has taken the pole position from the FPÖ, averaging 33% in the polls.
While the right is riding high, the left is in dismal. Social democrats are in full-fledged panic mode, after lots of infighting, and a recent, rather shocking dirty campaigning scandal. The fault lines run not only between the left and the right wing of the party on federal level and state level (most importantly, within the highly important Viennese organisation), but also between the Chancellery and the party. Chancellor and party chairman Christian Kern is being dubbed “lame duck” by some, and there is talk that the right wing of the party with Defence Minister Hans-Peter Doskozil at its helm will take over quickly, once Kern has lost the election. Kern’s only hope is that core voters might solidarize with his flagging party.
The Greens, by some measure electorally the most successful green party in Europe, have split. One of their long-standing MPs, Peter Pilz, who did not get the spot on the list he thought he deserved, consequentially left and founded his own party. In the polls, he is now on eye-level with his former party, between 4% and 6%. It is not inconceivable that Greens may even exit parliament for the first time since entering in 1986. In any way, the result will expectedly be a catastrophe for them, unless they are able to pull off a stunt like the German Greens to duck the polls and draw voters from the Social democrats.
At the political centre, NEOS, which have entered parliament at first attempt in 2013 with 5% of the vote (electoral threshold being 4%), have done well in the polls, which puts them between 5% and 6%. There is a good chance this will be surpassed, as polls in 2013 underestimated NEOS right until the elections. However, it is clear the rightward shift of the political centre combined with other parties not only outspending NEOS manifold, but also adopting part of its language and surface, makes it a particularly tough election battle. If NEOS manages to grow, it would be first liberal party in Austrian history to do so.
The potential coalitions
In short, based on current polling, there are three potential coalitions, all of them tried out before, and two genuinely new long-shots.
The coalition of Conservatives and the right-wing FPÖ has a 35% chance of happening. The FPÖ desperately wants into government, particularly its chairman HC Strache, for whom this will be his last chance to become Vice-Chancellor. Others within his party are more sceptical, remembering the crash and split of the party last time the FPÖ was in government with the Conservatives. As a symbolic morning gift, the FPÖ recently upated its economic manifesto to be more in line with the ÖVP. For Austria, this coalition would mean more overt racism, even more xenophobic rhetoric, even tougher migration policies, more infringement of basic rights, economic protectionism, Europe-scepticism, scandals as in the past and, potentially, a warming-up to Putin’s Russia.
Grand coalition 2.0
While many thought the coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP was dead for good, there is a 25% chance of it returning undead, this time with the ÖVP in the lead. What supports this scenario is the one thing Social democrats fear most: losing power, and having to go into opposition. Last time the SPÖ went out of government, it took them a long time to recover. So, in this scenario, the right wing of the party would take over, and Defence Minister Doskozil would become party chairman and Vice-Chancellor. For Austria, this would mean by and large carrying on with the status quo, with a blockage of urgently needed reforms, particularly in education, pensions and the social sector, and ÖVP and SPÖ battling for the tougher line on migration. As Kurz knows citizens will ask themselves why they voted for a change just to get the same again, he will be dis-incentivised to go for this option. On the other hand, he might be tempted to marginalise the SPÖ as junior partner, Merkel-style.
With Social democrats fearing opposition like hell, and right-wing FPÖ desperately wanting into government, there is a 20% chance of them coalescing, even if they take 2nd and 3rd place. Thereby the FPÖ could avoid getting crushed as junior partner to a high-riding ÖVP. They also might think the wounded Social democrats will be ready to make more concessions. The two parties know each other, as SPÖ and FPÖ have already coalesced in the 1980s. Finally, as an incentive for both, this would mean upending the steep ascent of ÖVP chairman Sebastian Kurz. For Austria this would mean a combination of economic protectionism, tougher security and migration policies, an even bigger, more intrusive state and more re-distribution.
As first of the long shots, there is a 10% chance of a Jamaica-style coalition of the Conservatives, the Greens and NEOS. “Dirndl” is a typically Austrian garment with different colours. At the moment, this coalition does not have a majority in the polls. However, with the political environment volatile as it is, and with some new initiatives supporting it, if all three parties perform at the top end of expectations, it could still come into being. For Austria, this would be the first three-way coalition, and therefore genuinely new.
The other long shot with a 10% chance is a minority government, which would also be a first for Austria. It has lots going against it, first of all that Kurz, should he win, will want to convey stability instead of starting an experiment that could fail. On the other hand, a minority government, or one with the “best heads” of all parties, has worked for other countries before, would be genuinely innovative, and like the “Dirndl”-Coalition signal a real break with Austria’s Second Republic.
Torn between the old and the new
There is lots of public interest in the election, not the least thanks to the fact that there are more publicly broadcasted duels and round-tables of the leading politicians than ever before. This is a good thing.
On the other hand, trust in the Austrian political system and democracy itself have again been damaged badly by some of the election campaigns. Manipulated statistics, fake news, wrong claims and dirty campaigning by SPÖ, ÖVP and FPÖ alike have further undermined the already low reputation of politics and politicians in the public. The echoes of this will be felt for years to come.
Whatever the outcome on October 15, there are changes ahead for Austria. Whether they will lead to something genuinely new that will propel the country forward, or whether some remix of the old will take the country backward, remains to be seen.
For the time being, Austria is in a kind of political crisis, torn between the old and the new. As the sharp-minded Antonio Gramsci observed in his prison notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Josef Lentsch is Direktor NEOS Lab – Das offene Labor für neue Politik