By Marcelo Jenny (University of Innsbruck)
For months polls predicted first place in the Austrian parliamentary elections on 29 September for the christian-democratic People’s Party (ÖVP). The polls were right in that regard, but the ÖVP victory was bigger than expected and results of other parties so drastically altered that the country’s political landscape transformed.
The People’s Party (ÖVP), led by 33 year old party leader Sebastian Kurz won a projected vote share of 37.1 percent (+ 5.7 percent), turning it into the largest party by far in the next National Council, the lower chamber of the national parliament. The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), led by Pamela Rendi-Wagner, dropped to a vote share of 21.7 percent (-5.1 percent), its worst result ever. Even worse was the beating the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) took. Until four months ago it had been the ÷VP’s government partner. The vote share of the FP÷ dropped from 26 percent in 2017 (almost at a par with the Social Democrats) to 16.1 percent (-9.9 percent) in 2019. In relative terms the Freedom Party lost almost 40 percent of its former voters.
The second big winner of the 2019 elections are the Austrian Greens, led by Werner Kogler. The party made an extraordinary comeback after failing the electoral threshold and dropping out of the National Council in the 2017 elections. Under Kogler’s leadership the Greens obtained a vote share of 14 percent, which is their best result in national parliamentary elections. The split-off party JETZT, led by former Green MP Peter Pilz, entered the National Council in 2017, but failed to pass the 4 percent electoral threshold this time. It obtained only 2 percent (- 2.4 percent). The liberal party NEOS, led by Beate Meinl-Reisinger, increased its vote share to 7.8 percent (+ 2.5 percent). Other minor parties had a combined vote share of other minor parties was 1.3 percent. A record number of postal votes will be counted on Monday and Thursday, but changes in results are expected to be small. Electoral turnout has dropped in the projection to 75.5 percent, the second lowest turnout in national parliamentary elections.
Since the 2017 election until May of this year Austria had a coalition government between ÖVP and FPÖ under Federal Chancellor Kurz. Then German media released a two years old video with embarassing and incriminating secret recordings of FP÷ party leader Heinz-Christian Strache and his confidant Johann Gudenus in which they provided a supposed niece of a Russian oligarch in exchange for campaign support with proposals to invest in Austrian companies and media that would benefit once the FPÖ was in government and able to steer government contracts her way. The video resulted from a honey trap operation set up by several persons to collect incriminating evidence on Strache that could be used for extortion, selling to others or just to hurt the Freedom Party.
In order to safeguard the coalition with the ÖVP, Vice-Chancellor Strache immediately stepped down and was replaced as party leader by Norbert Hofer, the party’s presidential candidate in 2016, but Kurz in addition demanded the replacement of FP÷ Minister of the Interior Herbert Kickl for a neutral inquiry into the video affair. Kickl had been by far the most controversial and combative minister in the coalition government. Some of his actions and statements had been hard to swallow Kurz later stated. To the Freedom Party, however, Kickl was one of its most successful cabinet members and its ministers collectively resigned rather than accept the ÖVP demand. Kurz replaced the FP÷ ministers by non-party affiliated ministers of his choice and proposed new elections to be held as quickly as possible.
Polls showed an immediate drop in popularity for the FPÖ and a rise for the People’s Party (e.g. Politico Poll of Polls, https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/austria/). The Social Democratic Party, unprepared for snap elections and faring badly in the polls, faced a dilemma: wether it should campaign against Kurz as leader of the federal government, providing him with a scenario as ‘saviour’ in a national crisis, or at a supposedly equal footing once his government was ousted by a no-confidence vote. That ran the risk of allowing Kurz to campaign as ‘victim’ of the machinations of the other parties. The SPÖ chose the second option and with support of Freedom Party and JETZT the first successful no-confidence vote against a naational government in the National Coundil passed and ended the government of Federal Chancellor Kurz. President Van der Bellen put a care-taker government of civil servants led by the President of the Constitutional Court of Justice, Agnes Bierlein, in office. Both president Van der Bellen and Federal Chancellor Bierlein, the country’s first female head of government, won praise for the way they fulfilled their roles. Bierlein defined her role as leader of a purely administrative government that would run the ministries until a new party government was in place.
Pushed out of government office the ÖVP was free to follow a ‘victim’ script in a campaign extremely focused on its party leader. Its rise in the polls to 38 percent in the declared vote showed that voters beyond his personal fan base perceived his ouster as unfair. During a ‘long’ campaign from May to September the ÷VP remained far ahead. The last time the party had seen such a strong lead was in 2002 when party leader Wolfgang Schüssel called snap elections and poached voters from his coalition partner FP÷ which suffering from infighting over the unaccustomed role as a government party.
A number of smaller and bigger events produced negative news coverage of the ÷VP during these months: the so-called ‘Shreddergate’ involving the destruction of some hard drives from the Federal Chancellery and an unpaid bill, leaked party emails, evidence that the party had deliberately ignored the campaign spending limit of 7 million Euros in the 2017 election and spent almost double that amount, and that it had asked big money party supporters for serial contributions just below a 50 000 Euro threshold that would have required immediate publication of amount and source. In July a voting coalition of SPÖ, FPÖ and JETZT drastically lowered the limit for individual campaign contributions to 7.500 Euro and the total amount incurred to 750.000 Euros per year. The measure hurt the income streams of ÖVP and NEOS, which had profited most from wealthy campaign contributors. A hacker attack on the ÷VP’s network released a bounty of party files with embarassing information to the investigative left weekly Der Falter.
Austrian print media exhibited an increased degree of media – party parallelism in 2019. Negative reports chipped away at the ÷VP’s support in the polls decreasing it to 34 percent vote share in the final week, but these stories apparently bothered the electorate much less than the elites. Facebook’s greater transparency on campaign ads allowed a better look at parties’ social media campaign spending. Yet without disregarding the important role played by social media, the 2019 election saw the supposedly old-fashioned medium television dominating the political discourse through two dozen TV debates of party leaders on public and private TV drawing large audiences. Newspapers had television and video channels with their own candidate debates.
Similarly, though not as dominantly as the refugees issue dominated the public arena in the 2017 parliamentary elections, the climate crisis was a prime concern in the 2019 election. Steady news reporting on the climate crisis throughout the summer as well as the Fridays for Future movement whose Earth strike day on Friday marked the end of the electoral campaigns provided the thematic backdrop for this election. The climate crisis was the most frequently mentioned issue in an election day survey (https://www.sora.at/fileadmin/downloads/wahlen/2019_NRW_Grafiken-Wahltagsbefragung.pdf) and the Greens’ result may be partly due to surfing a wave of concern and holding issue ownership. In parliamentary sessions ahead of the elections a variety of voting coalitions passed additional state expenditures without concern for budgetary discipline as last minute gestures to retirees and other voter groups.
Final polls put the Freedom Party’s voter support at about 20 percent, but news reports in the last few days that the party was still providing financial support to ex-leader Strache, including a spending account that he was accused of misusing for private gain, and other negative stories hurt the party’s image as the representative of the common people. A drop to 16 percent in the election suggests that these stories caught on, whereas negative reporting on a former prominent member of the Greens in Vienna alleging inappropriate charitable donations from city developers did not. Low turnout hurt the Freedom Party as well as the Social Democratic Party whose party leader Rendi-Wagner had stressed social cohesion and the prevention of another ÖVP-FPÖ coalition as main campaign issues, but failed to impress voters.
What does the surprising new constellation of party strenghs in the National Council mean for the next government formation? Based on the polls another coalition between ÖVP and FPÖ had been seen as the most likely outcome, because the FPÖ was keen to re-renter government. Kurz praised their collaboration as successful, but indicated no preference for the next government composition during the campaign.
Based on the election result the ÖVP can form a two party majority coalition with either SPÖ, FPÖ or the Greens. However, on election day evening leading FPÖ politicians said the party would move into opposition. The SPÖ likewise indicated no interest in joining a coalition with the ÖVP. Green party leader Kogler said that his immediate task ahead was to rebuild the party organization and not joining a government. NEOS had repeatly indicated its desire to join a government coalition with the ÖVP before the election, but that option lacks a parliamentary majority. ÷VP leader Kurz said he would conduct exploratory talks with all parties.
Due to the large policy distances between the ÖVP and the Greens in a number of policy areas, including on migration, integration and social policy, any coalition negotiations between these two parties are expected to be very difficult. A three party coalition with NEOS would constitute a minimal connected winning coalition in some policy areas. The idea of a minority government, though not popular in Austria, has been raised, too. Given some time to digest the outcome of this election, either the SPÖ, or the FPÖ, might come around and join a coalition with the ÖVP under the leadership of Kurz.
Photo source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-49867930