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In the Run-Up to the Parliamentary Elections

Austria’s Emerging Quick-Change Artist

October 10, 2017 | by ANTON PELINKA

Österreichs Außenminister Sebastian Kurz bei "Zusammen Österreich", 2014 . Photo: Bundesaußenministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Has the decline of Austria’s catch-all parties come to an end? The People’s Party at least seems to have successfully reinvented itself. Or is someone else hiding in their new clothes?

Less than one month from the elections for the Austrian parliament or Nationalrat (National Council), a development first visible in late spring of this year appears to have stabilized. The conservative Christian-democratic People’s Party leads in all public opinion polls and can expect a plurality of votes and seats in the National Council. Considering the party’s decline over more than a decade, such an outcome would be a remarkable reversal of a nearly 40-year trend. Since the 1980s, Austria’s party system has been characterized by a more-or-less steady decline of the two traditional mainstream parties left and right of center, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP), whereas the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Greens have seen a steady increase in support. The result has been an ongoing de-concentration of the party system, which for a long time was considered to be one of the most concentrated (in terms of the number of relevant parties in parliament) and predictable systems in Europe.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2017 Social Governance Indicator demonstrates that the emotional distance between the traditional elites and the rest of society has become broader and deeper. Trust in politics-as-usual has reached a low point, and parties commonly identified with the status quo are less and less able to mobilize voters. Reforms widely considered to be urgent, like education, the labor market and the pension system, are routinely blocked. The Austrian system seems to be unable to reform its structure and refresh its policies, and the traditional parties have paid the price. This was the overall picture until the spring of 2017.

Reversal of a long-term trend

Now tendencies seem to be going in a different direction. For the first time since 2002, the People’s Party could now become the strongest party in parliament, and the Freedom Party, which was expected to come after it, may have to fight the Social Democratic Party for second position. Other parties – especially the Greens, but also the liberal NEOS – are far behind. The prediction that the long-term trend favoring non-traditional parties would continue is likely to prove wrong.

Within the rules of Austria’s parliamentary democracy, any combination of two of the three major parties could form a cabinet backed by a parliamentary majority. For some, however, this possibility means the end of Austria’s grand coalition government – the power-sharing alliance between the Social Democratic Party and the People’s Party.

Austria is a striking example of a country ruled by grand coalitions, but it would be too simple to see this kind of government as a predominant model that might come to an end in 2017. Between 1966 and 1983, Austria had a Westminster-style system. For four years, the People’s Party governed alone, before the Social Democratic Party took the helm in the “Kreisky Era.” From 1983 to 1986, the Social Democrats governed with the Freedom Party, and from 2000 to 2006 it was the People’s Party that formed an alliance with the right-wing populists, and the Social Democrats stayed in as the opposition. So it wouldn’t be a new experience for the Social Democrats or the Conservatives to warm the opposition benches now.

A major party recreates its self-image

Yet the present trend truly is noteworthy in other respects. The People’s Party leads in all public opinion polls, because it has redefined itself. It claims to be a new party – even renaming itself the “New People’s Party”. Under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister of the outgoing coalition, the party has deconstructed its old self by significantly reducing the importance of sub-parties, the regional (state) parties and the corporatist organizations for farmers, employers and employees. Once a cornerstone of the old party system, the People’s Party is now selling itself as a fresh party in a new outfit. This traditional mainstream party is redirecting the wind of change. Instead of driving the Freedom Party and the Greens that wind now favors the People’s Party.

Substantively, the new People’s Party doesn’t look so new at all. In some sensitive policy areas, its agenda is very similar to that of the populist Freedom Party, with stricter immigration policy, more empathy for EU-skepticism as found in the Visegrad states, and critical distance towards the path of more openness represented by Angela Merkel. The People’s Party has become significantly less pro-European and is showing a somewhat softer version of the traditional neo-nationalistic attitude associated with the Freedom Party.

Austria drifts away from core Europe

The Social Democratic Party seems to envy the success of the renewed People’s Party. In some respects, they are also trying to take significant elements from the Freedom Party’s platform by following an ostensibly promising form of EU-skepticism that has traditionally been the populists’ realm. For example, the Social Democratic Party promotes actively restricting the European single market, challenging free access for citizens from EU countries like Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

These tendencies create a paradox: The Freedom Party is losing its pole position. There is a high probability that it will not be the strongest party in parliament after the October elections. But it may be successful in a different way – by having forced the two mainstream parties to take over its agenda. Compared to polls from a year ago, the Freedom Party will probably be disappointed. As a party it won’t win – but its policies may.

This will not portend an immediate, dramatic change in Austria’s overall political performance. But an Austria governed indirectly by the ideology of the populist Freedom Party and its EU skepticism cannot expect to be a significant player in a Union whose course is set by Angela Merkel, Emanuel Macron and Jean Claude Juncker. After the elections on October 15, Austria may not join the Visegrad group officially. But informally, Austria’s government – no matter which players form its newly negotiated coalition – will act more like Hungary and Poland at the European level, and less like Luxembourg and Germany.

Dr. Anton Pelinka is Professor of Nationalism Studies and Political Science at the Central European University, Budapest (Hungary). He co-authored the SGI Report 2017 on Austria.

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