Austria, Progress, and Regress: How Did We Get Here?

December 22, 2017 § 1 Comment

Austria’s new government is, broadly speaking, bad news from pretty much any sort of progressive political perspective. It is the second time that Austria has embarked on a “blue-black” rightwing coalition between the anti-immigration, hard right Freedom Party, or FPO (led by Heinz-Christian Strache) and the traditional right-wing bloc, the Austrian People’s Party or OVP (led by Sebastian Kurz, now one of the youngest heads of government in Europe). Together, they have constructed a programme of government that involves heavy-handed anti immigration sentiment mixed with taking an axe to social security systems, breaking from the previous balance between the OVP and the social-democratic SPO. In this post, I’m not going to go into the likely policy effects of this coalition – my aim is to give a brief overview of how Austria got to this point, which I hope to follow with a second post on what some possible political outcomes might be in the long term.

Firstly, an overview of how Austria got here. Since electoral reforms in the 1970s and the end of one-party government in the early 1980s, the norm in Austrian governance has been “grand coalition” – a coalition between the centre-left SPO and the centre-right OVP. The exceptions to this have been 1983-86, when an FPO/SPO government was in power (though at that point the FPO was more placed as a right-liberal bloc, and their sharp turn to right-populism broke the coalition), and 1999-2006, when an FPO-OVP coalition was in power. Grand coalitions are often fractious affairs, but for the most part the two parties have been unable to get strong enough to rely on smaller & more ideologically compatible partners, and have preferred one another to the anti-immigration, anti-EU vitriol and far-right links of the Freedom Party. The hard right has been Austria’s traditional third force since the 1980s, and probably tends to be a repository of localist and anti-government protest sentiment during the long periods of grand coalition rule as well as simply winning support for its hard-right positioning.

The last OVP/FPO government was a catastrophe for the Freedom Party, collapsing back from the mid twenties to around ten percent support and then being split as their then-leader, Jorg Haider, split the new “BZO” party off, primarily strong and based in his native Carinthia (of which he was governor). From this low water mark, though, the two populist right parties rebounded in opposition to the reformed grand coalition (which returned in 2006). The 2008 election was actually the major collapse point for the SPO and OVP – the SPO had slid down into the thirties as a standard level of support back in the 1990s, but 2008 saw them dip below 30% for the first time, and the OVP also got their worst result ever. This effect was however masked by two counterbalancing factors in the country’s politics. Firstly, the hard-right vote was neatly divided between the BZO and FPO, and secondly (though less importantly) a few percent of the vote went to parties that failed to reach the 4% parliamentary threshold.

The masking effect of the right split was retained in the 2013 election, when the BZO failed to enter parliament after Haider’s death in a car accident, but still ate some right-wing vote, and “Team Stronach”, an ego-project of a right-wing mogul, entered parliament and scooped up some of the potential FPO vote. The Austrian (classical) liberals, who had dipped in and out of parliament over the past two decades, had reformed into a new right-liberal bloc, NEOS, which appeared in 2013 for the first time, and the Greens reached 12% of the vote.

The destruction of the BZO and the transient nature of Team Stronach meant that after 2013, Strache’s FPO could finally unite the hard-right populist vote, and act as a repository for frustrations with a two-party coalition that had dragged on in an increasingly fractious manner since 2006. The FPO, SPO, and OVP were all running neck and neck by late 2013: in 2015, new anxieties over the Syrian refugee crisis were probably the spur that pushed the FPO vote up and clear of its rivals. In January-April of 2016, the FPO were recording leads as high as 12% in the polls and a vote share well into the thirties, whilst the SPO and OVP struggled in the low twenties. The presidential election (the Austrian president is a largely ceremonial post) saw the SPO & OVP candidates come fourth and fifth respectively, as the FPO’s Norber Hofer got 35% and his closest rival, former Green leader Alexander Van Der Bellen, got over 20%. This among other things triggered a change of Chancellor to Christian Kern, who helped pull some votes back from the Greens and returned the SPO vote to the high twenties. Der Bellen won after two tense run-offs with Hofer, and in early 2017 it seems likely that the FPO vote slid a little back to the SPO, though they still held a continual slim polling lead.

It became the OVP’s turn to switch leader in May 2017, when Sebastian Kurz took the reins. Giving a more acceptable face to anti-migration sentiment and promising conservative reforming policies, he saw an immediate surge in the OVP’s numbers. The FPO’s vote flopped into the mid-twenties practically overnight, and the OVP leapfrogged (as well as taking votes from) the SPO to take a clear lead in the polls. Throughout the campaign season, the OVP were clearly angling for an FPO coalition, though Kern suggested that an FPO/SPO coalition was not impossible, a sign of how acceptable and normalised the FPO have managed to make themselves across the Austrian political spectrum. The Greens imploded, with the breakaway “Pilz list” overtaking them in vote share and their voters often opting to prop up the SPO, which held up a little better than polling suggested and retained second place above the FPO, whilst the OVP in fact did a little worse but still easily enough to become the leading party in the new government. The Greens narrowly missed out of the 4% parliamentary threshold, leaving a parliament with the Pilzers, NEOS, FPO, SPO, and OVP, in ascending order of votes/seats. The only possible coalitions involved two of the three major parties, and so as expected the FPO/OVP coalition was agreed.

Compared to other European countries and equivalent parties, the Austrian FPO is perhaps most able to enter government thanks to its longer standing within the country’s political scene: OVP voters especially may not find the FPO toxic as a potential coalition partner in the way that many Merkel voters would find the AfD, Rutte voters would find the PVV or Les Republicains voters would find the FN. This is despite the FPO sharing a European parliamentary group with these extreme anti-European and neo-fascist forces. The lack of pushback to FPO positions from the Austrian left may have been unhelpful in this regard: the SPO moving to oppose Merkel’s pro-refugee stance and joining with the OVP to pass a burqa ban, for example, has meant that genuinely liberal positions on migration have been left rather poorly argued in Austrian politics in recent years. The FPO under Strache have not adopted as anti-EU a line as their counterparts, either, especially recently – something that may have helped allay fears of their extremism. Whilst the FPO’s anti-immigration line is undoubtedly a large part of their appeal, though, we should not assume that it is the only one, nor that their supporters lack other deal-breakers with the party: it is very worth noting the likely place of the FPO as an anti-government sentiment repository up to this point, and the fact that it took the implosion of almost all alternatives for the FPO to unify as large an anti-government vote as at present. Whether the combination of factors that have led to the FPO’s current success is one that will be maintained under coalition conditions, and whether alternative populist forces can capitalise on their new position as a somewhat ideologically restricted establishment force, is still very much unclear.

In the next article in this series, I’ll examine some of the possible outcomes of the new coalition from a political perspective, and who the winners and losers of the new parliament might be in various political circumstances.


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