Austrians vote on Sunday. Will they turn to the right again?

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen celebrates with supporters at a post-election event in Vienna in 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)
Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen celebrates with supporters at a post-election event in Vienna in 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

In December 2016, Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green Party, won Austria’s presidential election. Even though he barely defeated the candidate of the radical right Freedom Party (FPÖ), euphoric observers argued that “Austria stopped right-wing populism in its tracks.”

Austrians again head to the polls on Sunday, this time to elect the Nationalrat (National Council), with 183 seats assigned via proportional representation. Despite Van der Bellen’s victory, restrictive talk on immigration and integration continues to dominate Austrian politics. Even more, the FPÖ looks likely to gain seats, and rejoin the government coalition after more than a decade in opposition.

However, it is not only the FPÖ driving Austria’s shift to the right. Sebastian Kurz, leader of the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP), made opposition to immigration the centerpiece of his campaign. With the center-left and the Greens in disarray, Kurz looks set to become the country’s new chancellor.

The Austrian political system

Nationalrat elections are held at least every five years. After an election, parties negotiate to reach agreement on a coalition that would secure a majority of seats. The independently elected president then appoints a chancellor, vice chancellor and ministers to form the federal government.

Since 1945, two main parties have shared power: the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the center-right ÖVP, often governing together in consensus-driven “Grand Coalitions.”

By the 1990s, the radical right FPÖ began to challenge the dominance of these coalitions. In 2000, an ÖVP-FPÖ right-wing coalition was formed. E.U. member states then “sanctioned” the new Austrian government for allowing the radical right to govern.

The 2006 election saw the resumption of the Grand Coalition with an SPÖ chancellor, reelected in 2008 and 2013. That left the center-right ÖVP as a consistently dissatisfied junior partner.

The resurrection of the conservatives

In May, Kurz took over the ÖVP leadership and supported early elections. Immediately, his party gained in support, despite polling only at third place for a year. Now, the conservatives lead the polls with about 33 percent of the total vote, up 9 percent from 2013. The 31-year-old foreign minister and his center-right party have boosted their popularity by undermining FPÖ’s ownership of the immigration issue, and implementing many of the FPÖ’s positions.

Most prominently, Kurz claims credit for the reduction of immigration to Europe after the closure of the Balkan route in 2016. This year’s “burqa ban” was another prominent ÖVP goal.

For quite some time, Kurz has been the last best hope of the Austrian center-right, which has suffered from a weak party organization that has made electoral success difficult. State party bosses and interest groups had dominated candidate selection. Upon Kurz’s leadership appointment, he was granted a stronger say in naming candidates. On the ballot, voters will now see his name and the “new” ÖVP.

Austria’s SPÖ is in disarray

Initially, Social Democrat supporters had great expectations for Chancellor Christian Kern, who was appointed in May 2016. Supporters hoped his status and mindset as political outsider would help the SPÖ rebound from its disastrous showing in the presidential election. Kern started out forcefully, suggesting “trend change” was needed or else the main parties risked “disappearing from the screen.”

However, Kern failed to pursue a consistent political agenda. On some issues, Kern took a left-wing approaching, calling for higher taxes on company profits and wealth. He also mobilized opposition against CETA: an E.U.-Canada economic agreement that he later agreed to anyway.

On other issues, he moved to the right, substantially following ÖVP immigration and integration policies. In addition, he stopped rejecting the FPÖ as potential partner in national government, reversing a long-term Social Democratic party principle.

Currently, it seems that the SPÖ will struggle to claim even the 2013 record low of 26.8 percent, leaving it to compete with the radical right for second place in Sunday’s elections. Recent scandals have destroyed any forward momentum of the party’s campaign. Many expect the SPÖ to go into opposition, though another Grand Coalition could emerge, with Kurz’s center-right ÖVP holding the chancellorship — or even an SPÖ-led coalition with the radical right.

The radical right with no chance of winning, but good chances of governing

Since 1986, when Jörg Haider became party leader, the FPÖ has been one of the radical right “pioneers” in Western Europe. Last year’s presidential campaign temporarily put Austria in the international spotlight with the FPÖ’s candidate finishing a close second. The party had also led the legislative polls until this May. On Sunday, the party will gain seats in the legislature, although less than previously expected — before Kurz’s leadership and reforms to the center-right ÖVP.

The fate of the small parties

Three smaller parties will likely claim some seats. However, it is unlikely that the liberal pro-business NEOS, the crisis-prone Greens, or the list of Green renegade Peter Pilz will matter for government formation. Current polls show all three parties at risk of performing lower than the 4 percent threshold for representation, which would be their worst-case scenario.

What’s the likeliest outcome, and where does this leave the president?

Many pundits regard a right-wing ÖVP-FPÖ government as most likely: Kurz’s campaign includes calls for closing Islamic kindergartens and cutting minimum social transfers to recognized refugees, reforms that the FPÖ supports. The two parties also have similar economic platforms, both offering tax reductions to businesses and massive cuts in government spending.

President Van der Bellen could intervene — it is his job to swear in the new government. However, Van der Bellen apparently has no plans to exclude the radical right from government. Traditionally, the Nationalrat dominates coalition formation in Austria’s “semi-presidential” system, which could cast doubt on Van der Bellen’s ability to reject the legislature’s majority.

The Austrian vote will test whether a center-right party can slow the rise of the radical right by adopting its agenda. Needless to say, the FPÖ has transformed Austrian politics and the positions of its competitors since the 1990s. The political mainstream, and in particular the center-left, has failed to find alternative strategies to deal with the radical right and the issue of immigration in the long run.

This Sunday’s election will likely show that Austria, which received one of the highest number of asylum applications in 2015 and 2016 in Europe, has turned sharply to the right.

Manès Weisskircher is researcher at the TU Dresden (MIDEM – Mercator Forum Migration and Democracy) and at the European University Institute in Florence. His research interests include comparative politics and political sociology. Find him on Twitter @ManesWeissk.
Matthew E. Bergman is a lecturer at University of California at San Diego. His research and teaching expertise lies in comparative politics and political economy, focusing on Europe.

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