Austria: 8 Scenarios For The Future

January 6, 2018 § 1 Comment

In my previous post on Austria, I explained some of the background to how Austria’s current Conservative-Neofascist coalition ended up in power – the weakened state of Austria’s two main parties since 2008/9, the FPO’s success in outlasting its hard-right rivals, and then their disappointing election result as the slicker OVP electoral machine of Sebastian Kurz provided an acceptable alternative for a slim segment of the electorate – enough to tip the balance and make the OVP the clear largest party. In this post, I want to focus on the different possibilities and scenarios for how this coalition might pan out. It would be a fool’s errand to make hard predictions at this stage, but here are a range of possibilities and an idea of some of the reasons why they may (or may not) happen. (I should also note that I apologise to any Austrian readers for the fact that I’m too lazy to put all the umlauts into the party names throughout this article.)

Scenario 1 – Reversion to the mean

In this scenario, the government suffers “normal” attrition rates of voters from both parties. It manages to accomplish a moderate amount of its agenda, without much spectacle: any more aggressive FPO ideas are restrained by the coalition agreement and EU, and there is neither an economic miracle nor a Kurz crash. Eventually, disgruntled voters leech away from the two parties, probably over the course of two rather dull terms in government, until most likely the grand coalition returns, either because the OVP have no further concessions they feel able to give to the FPO or because the coalition can no longer maintain a majority. This is the “neutral” scenario, and should probably be our baseline expectation at present: whilst I’m not sure it’s per se probable in and of itself, it’s probably the plurality option among those presented here.

Things to watch for: low polling volatility, lack of controversial government actions, strong Austria-EU relations, opposition discipline maintained.

Scenario 2 – Kurz wins

This is almost certainly Kurz’s planned or hoped for victory condition. In it, the FPO, unused to government, are wobbled by scandal – though not sufficiently to hurt the OVP – and government successes in lowering middle & upper class taxes, looking tough on migration, and cutting back red tape reward the OVP whilst making the FPO’s policy goals look comparatively weak. FPO voters abandon the party for the now-proven Kurz as a better guarantor of their interests, and the party begins to collapse into infighting, locked in as a decidedly more minor coalition partner in future.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s a rough parallel with what happened in the 1990s-2000s Blue/Black coalition. The OVP’s stronger traditional status as a safe pair of hands may play toward this happening, as may Kurz’s better personal approval ratings compared to Strache. On the other hand, the modern FPO is a considerably more ideologically cohesive body than its 2000-era counterpart, with Strache leading a disciplined party with a heavy German-nationalist lean and an effective campaigning playbook that mixes elements from other populist movements, probable Russian backing, and a more accepted place in Austria’s political scene than was the case 20 years ago.

Things to watch for: FPO losing ground, a strong economy, high Kurz approval ratings, progress on tax cuts, lower progress on constitutional & immigration reforms.

Scenario 3 – Strache wins

In this scenario, the FPO tail ends up wagging the OVP dog. “Successful” anti-immigration drives and negotiations over the South Tyrol are attributed to the FPO presence in government, and the party uses new referendum powers to outfox Kurz, blocking unpopular economic reforms and maintaining their outsider status despite being in government. Strache, granted a platform and respectability but little real responsibility, is able to position himself as a “man of the people”, dragging votes from older SPO voters and regaining the polling lead with right-wing voters he had before Kurz, now looking besieged and lightweight, took the reins of the OVP.

The likelihood of Strache really being a runaway winner from the coalition is probably low, but the FPO have shown in polling that they can easily reach the mid-thirties, and that in a head-to-head with a centre leftist that they can reach basically half the vote in Austria – in other words, there’s no reason to discount the idea that the FPO could become the largest party after the next election. The main thing weighting against this could well be the extent to which third parties end up as a repository for “systemic change” and “protest” votes, which Strache could struggle to retain with his new establishment status.

Things to watch for: lower Kurz approval ratings, the FPO leveraging new referendum powers, strong progress on immigration & the Tyrol issue.

Scenario 4 – Coalition Wins (Orbanisation)

This scenario (raised as a prospect by Matthias Strolz in recent comments) would see a still popular but increasingly Eurosceptic Kurz firm up a continued alliance with the FPO by leaning increasingly heavily towards anti-democratic policies over time. The “Orbanisation” term refers to the Hungarian leader, whose right-populist Fidesz party has become super-majority dominant and now has an excessive level of control of public discourse in the country. Unlike in Hungary, the left is far less severely shattered in Austria, such that this scenario is one of the more unlikely ones – especially as NEOS, whose votes are required for a supermajority & constitutional change, are unlikely to endorse any constitutional amendments seen as threatening to democratic norms.

Things to watch for: good FPO/OVP relations, action against public broadcasters, strengthened libel laws, strong relations between Kurz and Hungary, Russia & Visegrad leaders

Scenario 5 – Coalition Wins (Europhilic)

In this scenario, a popular coalition continues to be a success in office, aided by the FPO morphing into a new sort of party altogether: an authoritarian-eurofederalist entity. Continuing their anti-Islam and socially authoritarian positions domestically, the FPO would progressively drop their anti-EU policies and instead work to ensure authoritarian policies were protected at an EU level – defending Poland and Hungary from EU sanctions, for example, and pushing for the EU to be less welcoming as a whole to middle-eastern refugees. With the hard-right social policies of the government mostly falling heavily on the unemployed and refugees and unnoticed by much of the public, Kurz is able to claim success for an expanding economy, perhaps successfully negotiating for parts of the collapsing London financial sector to move to Vienna after Brexit. Ultimately, large chunks of the NEOS vote and some SPO voters switch to the OVP, who win an increased mandate with their FPO partners seeing a stable vote share. This scenario would require a significant level of discipline in FPO circles, however, as Eurosceptics in Strache’s base could seek alternative electoral options.

Things to watch for: a strong economy, good OVP-FPO relations continuing, major fractures in the SPO or NEOS, strong FPO party discipline.

Scenarios 6, 7 & 8: Opposition Victory

None of these scenarios are very likely, but all are worth examining – they cover scenarios in which the opposition, mainly NEOS and the SPO, reach a position where they can entirely take over government after the next election. All of these scenarios would require that both coalition parties significantly lost support and made serious missteps – economic contraction, scandal, simple incompetence, botched disagreements with the EU, etc. Most of them also require that NEOS angles itself with a view to muscling Kurz out of government and replacing the OVP as a potential centrist coalition partner for the SPO, whereas it seems at present more likely that Strolz will continue to appease Kurz in the hope that a NEOS-OVP coalition will be possible in future (though a pink-black coalition is perhaps unlikely as long as NEOS are seen as economically on the right: the OVP and NEOS may simply be competing for too many of the same voters to add up to a successful coalition, unless the OVP were to absorb a lot more of the FPO’s support).

The three most obvious paths to an opposition victory are I think as follows:

6, SPO populism: freed from the constraints of having to govern, and facing a government that ends up mostly trying to gut the social security net in Austria rather than pursuing the FPO’s authoritarian goals, the SPO revives itself by soft-pedalling its socially liberal policies and building a wave of economic populism in a Corbyn or Sanders style mould, dragging more votes from the Pilzers/Greens and most importantly eating a large chunk (up to half) of the FPO vote, as socially conservative but economically statist voters desert the party. The SPO has something of a history of pursuing socially conservative and anti-immigration policies when in coalition, such that a tack right on immigration nationally to appeal to FPO voters is a plausible option for them.

7, NEOS claim the centre-right mantle: This could mathematically happen in conjunction with the previous, though a different scenario makes it likely. Whereas the coalition focussing on right-economics would give the SPO their best shot at grabbing FPO votes, if they focus too hard on authoritarianism and veer into Euroscepticism then NEOS could paint the OVP as having abandoned the centre ground and sensible pro-business policies.

8, NEOS populism: A scenario where NEOS either moves to a localist social-liberal position (more like that held by the British Liberal Democrats) or a spikier position towards internationalism (as with their German FDP counterparts) would be an interesting, if improbable, scenario to consider, as it could put them in contention for small business OVP and FPO voters in rural areas for the first time. A good deal of localist, anti-elitist sentiment probably tends to manifest in FPO voting patterns: a liberal attempt to undercut that could threaten parts of the party’s voting base. These possibilities would, however, require NEOS to move into uncomfortable territory compared to their preferred mix of Europhilia and sharply “pro business” right-wing economics.

So there you have the scenarios. Which are more and which are less likely? So far the government is still in something of an electoral honeymoon, with both coalition partners on a polling high, but some things are already noticeable. Kurz seems to be positioning internationally as a Europhile, with the new government declaring allegiance to a strong European Union in their core coalition agreement. At Vienna’s famous New Year Concert, Kurz appeared to be getting along well with the Dutch right-liberal leader Mark Rutte, and apparently plans to conduct more intra-EU negotiations from the Chancellery rather than the foreign ministry. The FPO seem to be focusing on a “hard” anti-immigrant stance, including publicly suggesting using abandoned army bases as refugee internment camps. Overall, though, the core of the government’s approach seems to be likely to involve a focus on cutting social security and financial support for refugees. The fiscal outlook for the EU generally is rosy, and the opposition, if not wholly in disarray, are fractured, with NEOS in particular pursuing a soft line toward the new government on certain issues and the SPO perhaps likely to face internal disagreements between its statist/anti-immigrant and liberal/europhile camps.

Our initial expectation should probably involve a reversion to the mean, but Kurz’s personal popularity and a rising economy may put him in a good place to dominate the FPO as time goes on if he manages the situation intelligently, putting 2 as probably our second most likely scenario at present. Mutual victory seems less probable, as the combined right-wing alliance probably needs significant further fractures in its opposition to gain much overall ground, and it is too early to say how the opposition parties will position themselves or see how Strache uses his own position (though 3 is probably our third most likely scenario here, perhaps followed by 6). It will, in short, be a few months before we really have a sense of how the new government partners attempt to position versus one another and whether the government’s initial push, focusing on punitive attitudes towards the least fortunate, helps or hinders the maintenance of the electoral coalitions that brought the two parties to power.


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