By Martin Lausegger (University of Oxford)
On the 15th of October Sebastian Kurz, leader of the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP), celebrated a clear ‘start to finish’ victory. Ever since the 31-year old took over the ÖVP earlier this year, he consistently led the polls throughout an election campaign whose fundamental driving forces were immigration, the refugee crisis and dirty campaigning scandals. Around 6.4m Austrians were invited to vote, which resulted in a shift to the right as characterised by significant gains for the ÖVP and the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) as well as their anticipated formation of a coalition. The incumbent Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) lost, but was able to remain the second largest party.
Austria has a two-chamber electoral system that is closer to the end of full proportionality and that consists of the Bundesrat (the upper house) and the Nationalrat (the lower house). The Bundesrat represents the ‘Länder’ and, with the exception of changes to the constitution, has only limited power. The 183 seats of the Nationalrat stood for election last Sunday and decided about the distribution of the political power. The allocation of seats to individual members of parliament is determined through a system that combines three-tier districting and a national threshold.
Turning to the party system, Austria has an institutionalised two-party system despite its PR electoral system. The party system is characterised by the strength of the right-wing ÖVP and the left-wing SPÖ. The mid to late 1990s can be seen as the beginning of a new phase of the Austrian party system, as for the first time three parties competed for the position of the strongest party and the effective number of parties increased. Despite this, the party system remains highly institutionalised according to the ‘Composite Index of PSI’.
Campaign and Expectations
Looking back, the general election of 2013 saw a victory of the SPÖ which renewed its coalition with the ÖVP. The coalition came under pressure from the right-wing FPÖ in 2015 and 2016 as the refugee crisis reached its peak and over 1m refugees crossed through Austria. The vast majority of them headed towards Germany, but more than 100,000 (more than 1% of the population) asked for asylum in Austria. The pressure and polling figures for the FPÖ reached its peak during the presidential elections where FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer got second place, only beaten by the independent candidate and former party leader of the Greens Alexander Van der Bellen. To regain voters from the FPÖ, the coalition gave in to the mounting pressure and shifted to the right, which was most clearly characterized by the reinforcement of boarder controls, an upper limit of the amount of refugees to be accepted in 2016, and a Burka ban that was agreed upon by the SPÖ/ÖVP coalition. In May 2017 Vice-Chancellor and leader of the People’s Party Reinhold Mitterlehner stepped down and was replaced by Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz as party leader. Kurz instantly cancelled the grand coalition which led to the snap election.
Turning to parties’ election campaigns, Christian Kern’s SPÖ was backed by improving macro-economic figures and was running on the promise that its now time for the lower and middle classes to benefit after having carried much of the burden of the 2007/08 financial crisis. This was illustrated by poster taglines such as ‘get what you are entitled to.’ Key demands in Kern’s electoral programme ‘Plan A’ included the introduction of an inheritance tax, tax reductions for the poorest and more benefits for tenants. The final weeks of SPÖ’s electoral campaign where overshadowed by scandals related to the party’s payments to and involvement with advisor Tal Silberstein. Silberstein is an Israeli political advisor with expertise in dirty campaigning and who worked for candidates ranging from Julia Timoschenko to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. He got imprisoned due to alleged money laundering in August 2017 and was accused of having influenced SPÖ’s electoral strategy and of having initiated extreme-right anti-Kurz websites. This contributed to this election campaign being perceived as ‘the dirtiest ever experienced’.
When Sebastian Kurz took over the ÖVP, he changed the party’s statutes to increase his powers. This enabled him to freely compile the lists of candidates for the upcoming elections through which he was able to place political outsiders on the lists. He further dumped the party’s black colour scheme in favour of a bright turquoise one. Altogether, this contributed to the traditional ÖVP taking on the image of a movement that strongly reminded of Macron’s and Obama’s campaigns. He ran a personality campaign that focused on Kurz himself, as characterized by changing the party’s name to ‘List Sebastian Kurz – The New People’s Party’. Despite leading a party that has been in government for 30 years and him being the longest serving member of government (relative to other frontrunners), Mr Kurz successfully portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate who wants to shake up the political system. His political demands focused on a pro-business agenda that aimed at decreasing payroll taxes and simplifying Austria’s bureaucracy. In regards to foreign policy, Kurz urged for the closure of the Mediterranean refugee route and for restricted access to welfare benefits for non-Austrians. He ran a strong campaign, was consistently ahead in the polls and managed to fill the country’s biggest hall with over 10,000 party supporters.
With the shift to the right of the ÖVP and the SPÖ prior to the election, the room for the FPÖ on the political left-right spectrum decreased. The party’s leader since 2005 Heinz-Christian Strache responded in two ways. First, he focused on personal attacks against Kern and in particular Kurz, as the latter took over several policy positions of the FPÖ over the last few years. Kern was attacked in regards to his relationship with Silberstein and dirty campaigning, while Kurz was attacked for allegedly being inconsistent, and for his (lack of) actions as foreign minister during the refugee crisis. Second, immigration was the central theme of the elections. Hence, the FPÖ focused their campaign on recreating fairness for Austrians. This was characterised by Trump-like anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, demands for stronger boarders, and increasing welfare benefits while simultaneously making it more difficult for non-Austrians to access it. Throughout the campaign ÖVP and SPÖ hurled accusations and lawsuits at each other over manipulative and dirty campaigning. This benefited the FPÖ which ran a campaign that stood out through catchy advertising clips.
Results and Coalition Outlook
Despite consistency throughout the opinion polls, the actual results diverged from predictions (see above graph). The ÖVP came first gaining 31.6% of votes, less than predicted. The SPÖ gained 26.9% in a head-on-head race against the FPÖ with 26.0% of votes and was able to gain second place (these are preliminary results as of 16.10.2017; around 900,000 postal ballots won’t be completely tallied until Thursday). While there are three possible coalition set ups, a right-wing ÖVP/FPÖ coalition is anticipated and deemed as most likely.
• ÖVP/FPÖ: Will there be a comeback of the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition which ruled the country from 1999 to 2006? Ideologically the two parties became more alike, as illustrated by ÖVP’s standpoints on topics ranging from the refugee crisis to mutual support to cancel Turkey’s EU accession talks. However, Austrian voters still remember the political chaos created between 1999 and 2006. Meanwhile the FPÖ shifted slightly towards the centre as seen by no longer calling into question the country’s Eurozone membership and as the party ‘is desperate to show it is capable of government’. While protests were organised the evening of the election against a potential ÖVP/FPÖ coalition, this remains currently the most likely scenario.
• ÖVP/SPÖ: Kurz called for the snap election stating that he does not want to continue governing with the SPÖ. He campaigned for change and against the status quo. In fact, the two parties have been in government for 55 and 61 years respectively since World War 2, usually in coalition with each other. Kurz would lose credibility with the electorate if he continues with another grand coalition. Furthermore, the relationships between the two long-time coalition partners significantly worsened throughout the campaigning period and was characterised by personal attacks between Kurz and Kern and mutual law suits. Whereas Kern himself stated in the last days before the election that his SPÖ ‘will prosper in opposition’, another grand coalition remains an option.
• SPÖ/FPÖ: This is the least likely constellation. While the two parties formed a coalition in the 80s, it did not end well. The rise of Jörg Haider within the FPÖ triggered the SPÖ to respond with a ‘politics of exclusion’ via disassociating itself from and avoiding to govern with the FPÖ. The two parties are ideologically far apart when it comes to their views on democratic freedom, immigration and rights, but share perspectives in their support that the government ought to play an active role in the economy. For this coalition to happen, an influential wing within the SPÖ, headed by Vienna’s major Michael Häupl, would need to be convinced or over-ruled.
Source of graph: author, using 13 opinion polls before the election