November 20, 2017
After the victory the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) during the Austrian Elections, Sebastian Kurz was asked by President Alexander van der Bellen to start coalition talks. Though widely criticized, but nevertheless not totally unexpected, Kurz started talks with Austria’s far right Freedom Party (FPÖ).
The far-right party became third-strongest party. First analyses suggested voters had penalised a grand coalition of social democrats SPÖ and conservative ÖVP. Besides these three parties, the liberal NEOS gained seats (+ 0.3%) as did the new party PILZ (4.4%), while Austria’s Green party was the big loser of the election night (-8%). Consequently, the party is not represented in the Nationalrat (parliament) anymore. Voter turnout was around 80 per cent, while numbers of core voters are declining, numbers for mobilised non-voters went up between 2013 and 2017 (SORA).
For our Talking Europe podcast series, Fabio Wolkenstein and Martin Schmidler shared their views on the election as well as on the campaign with us. Both seemed not surprised of the outcome of the early-called elections.
The rise of the Freedom Party, as in many other European countries, both explain with the migration crisis and the aftermath of the economic crises. However, Martin criticized the media for taking over the messages and frames of the Freedom Party on migration during the campaign.
Previous to the Election Day, Austrian’s social democrats (SPÖ) had excluded a coalition with Strache’s FPÖ. Kurz was not that exclusive. He argued that a “strong will of shaping” the future of the country which emerged in first talks with FPÖ’s leader Strache, is a good starting point to sound out governing options. Though, Kurz focuses on a clear pro-European positioning of the new government.
It remains to be seen how European the agenda over all can be in such a controversial coalition. Historically and traditionally close to the Visegrád Four, new dynamics in Austria might evolve. A rapproachment between the potential new Austrian government and the V4 states is expected in terms of migration and security policy by Martin. However he doesn’t expect the new government as Eurosceptic as has been conjured up in major news outlets around Europe immediately after the election. The new government‘s agenda might be dominated by security issues to build up a network of European security. As Fabio points out, the Freedom Party often called for a referendum on EU membership of Austria if powers in Europe become centralised. However, he points out that these calls became silent since the presidential elections last year, giving way to a repeated pro-European commitment while still collaborating with Eurosceptic and anti-EU parties on an international-level. A hint of pragmatism on the side of the FPÖ to keep open government options?
“Austria deserves a fast and quick formation of a new government,” Sebastian Kurz
The possibility of the FPÖ/ÖVP coalition became more likely by a change in Kurz’s positioning: Though he started out as a progressive force in his party – at odds with especially the FPÖ’s stances on immigration – his rebranded People’s Party shifted to the right. “I cannot pinpoint what Kurz’s personal ambition is except to become chancellor” said Martin. Was it merely adopting and adapting of some of the Freedom Party’s political stances? “There is a big shift in terms how political discourse and in fact the parties that really shape Austrian politics have changed”, explained Fabio. The discussions in Austrian politics were very much stirred by the topic of immigration, among all voter groups. Kurz played into this. This is identified as one factor swinging Austria to the right in our podcast.
The rise of the youngster Kurz to youngest chancellor-to-be in the EU is worth scrutinizing. He rebranded the ÖVP – Liste Sebastian Kurz – which was listed as a movement on the ballot since taking over leadership in May 2017. Was it an attempt to imitate and jump on the train of the movement trend as seen with En Marche in France, or DiEM25? Focusing on the person Sebastian Kurz turned out to be successful: 42 per cent of ÖVP voters indicated the candidate as key factor for their voting decision, whereas only 15 per cent named the political programme decisive in a survey by SORA. Fabio explains the success of the phenomenon of Sebastian Kurz with his personality as a “fantastically talented communicator” who understood to play on the change of the political climate, taking leadership.
For Martin the main campaign dynamics were the narrative of Sabastian Kurz as a “saviour for the conservative party” being pushed within the party itself as well as by the media since he had taken over the party in May, and the dirty campaigning on behalf of the Social Democrats.
Just as the German Social Democrats SPD, the Austrian sister party SPÖ now has to orientate itself as a new opposition party. They need to rebuild their base, counter balance internal party fractions and discussion to finally be able to do fruitful opposition work and re-gain votes lost to the FPÖ.
The biggest looser of the election, however, were the Green party, dropping from around 12 to only around 3.8 per cent. Certainly, the breakaway of former Green member Peter Pilz who formed his own list had hurt the party, by splitting up supports at the same time. Interestingly, the new list included amongst others former MPs as well as experts of different fields. Can the list base their further progress on the reputation of Pilz who stepped down after allegations of sexual harassment? The liberal NEOS are predicted to defend civil liberties while possibly siding with the government coalition on economic issues in a government coalition shifted to the right.
Want the full story? Listen to the complete interviews with Fabio and Martin and get in-depth insights on our Talking Europe podcast on Soundcloud.