Has Austria shifted to the far-right? The truth is more complicated
Three coalition scenarios in Austria will determine which direction Austria will shift. Practically, the old guard in Austria is too deeply entrenched in the state apparatus to see an immediate, and marked, shift to the right in everyday governance.
Declaring that Austria has shifted completely to the far-right is misleading. A majority voted center-right and far-right, correct, but in order to better understand today’s Austrian politics we must look beyond election night.
Let me first briefly sum up election fever, Austrian style.
Foreign observers who spent the past couple of months here in the Republic of Austria could be forgiven to eventually have come down with election fatigue. For example, I saw more televised debates with candidates all lumped together or in one-on-one debates than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. But no fatigue on the voter side: a high turnout of just about 80 percent.
Sixteen political parties contested the 183 available seats for the Nationalrat, the national parliament. So let us now present the clear winner of the night: 31 year-old current Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz and his New Austrian Peoples Party, or Neue OVP.
As it stands Kurz won 31.6 percent of the vote, followed by the Socialists (SPO) coming in at 26.9 percent, closely followed by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) with 26 percent (the far-right FPO’s best performance since 1996). Liberals (Neos) and the Green Party offspring, Liste Pilz, just about in, and the Greens out. Data used here factors in computed postal votes projections. No seats for the ten smaller parties.
Now, a coalition government is required as 92 seats in parliament are needed to form a majority and no single party achieved this, which is an almost impossible benchmark in Austria.
Why the Austrian vote is unique
Conventional wisdom would presume that left-leaning parties nominate younger candidates but in the leader of the conservative OVP, Sebastian Kurz, Austria will have its youngest ever Federal Chancellor. He revamped an entire—often seen as lacking inspiration—party into an almost US-style election machine including holding a convention with over 10,000 attendees.
Whereas in other European countries political infighting is often an issue for packed hotel meeting rooms but not public discourse, here in Austria, the Greens Party basically split into two halves with little time left before the vote to explain to their voter base what had actually happened.
The Result? According to this morning’s data the original Green Party is out, and its spin-off Liste Kurz has just about sneaked into parliament. The quarreling continued in front of cameras even after the votes had been counted.
What has become known as “dirty campaigning” was a tactic, which if proven true, was masterminded by members of the SPO to unfairly target the OVP and Sebastian Kurz in particular. Campaigns such as these based on social media are seldom employed elsewhere in Europe. Interestingly enough, it did not deter voters from handing Kurz the pole position.
And then there is the potential political impact.
The OVP could very well form a coalition with the far-right FPO. Yet it was only last night when party leaders were grilled by curious television anchors that we heard the FPO’s relatively EU-critical stance, minutes after the OVP had declared their unwavering support for Austria in the EU. However, this is still the most likely coalition scenario.
Then there is the option of that what is referred to as “red and blue” tying the knot; that is a socialist – far-right coalition. One leading politician from Burgenland has already declared his sympathies for such a move so it is more than just a hypothetical fantasy.
And last not but not least there is a third model – the continuation of the grand coalition albeit with reversed roles as Kurz would be Chancellor and no longer his current predecessor Christian Kern. A move Heinz-Christian Strache from FPO is naturally worried about.
A no-coalition model would be a minority government, if approved by President Alexander van der Bellen. Kurz did not rule out anything this morning, but in my opinion this option would lead to snap elections rather quickly.
Has Austria shifted to the far-right?
Austria is at a crossroads, correct. The country must decide whether it wants to embark on a more market oriented course focusing on innovation, entrepreneurship and less government, a “lean state” as Sebastian Kurz demands.
A modern, innovative, exporting nation must be by definition open to the world and cannot build a (metaphorical) wall around itself.
Austria must urgently reduce its unemployment ratio and must at the same time decide whether or not it wants CETA (even a public vote could be on the cards). Its education system needs an overhaul – something most of the people I’ve spoken with here in Austria agree with.
Now that a far-right party could join the ministerial ranks, of course everything has changed. The unwritten and essentially permanent consensus between socialists and conservatives (same as in the European Parliament for that matter) has been dealt a bitter blow. But then again has it?
Was it not the Conservatives who themselves called off the current coalition with the socialists and asked for elections? So was there anything left in the first place to preserve?
Even if the far-right does join one of the two coalition scenarios in which they could be included in, day-to-day governing would replace campaign slogans. It is easy to declare during campaigning that a country cannot absorb any more migrants and refugees, yet once in government, those who are already here need support and integrative measures, not further exclusion.
In my opinion the FPO has reached its maximum peak as far as votes are concerned, turning further too the far-right would mobilize more anti-FPO voters next time around and could even alienate quite a considerable number of their current voter base.
Austria decided and swings more to the right than to the left yet it will not become a one-directional nation state. The SPO (socialists) are far too embedded in bureaucracy, state apparatus, military, education and everyday life.
Even if on paper Austria is now majority-wise center-right or right of center thanks to the Freedom Party, there is still 40 percent of the electorate who are clearly not. If we then count those in the OVP who consider themselves more liberal than hardliners, plus the twenty percent of no-voters – the picture changes further.
Wait for a coalition crisis and all could change dramatically once more, perhaps back to a more center, or center-left scenario.
The Austrian vote: yes a clear move to the right but labeling the majority of the population far-right is misleading; but there is definitely cause for concern.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.