Populist party now
Incorporating a broad swath of interests into the policymaking process has traditionally been a strong point of the Austrian political system. However, this has started to change for two reasons, one more general and one more specific. As a result of Austria’s de iure integration into the European Union (and especially into the European Single Market) and Austria’s de facto integration into an ever more globalized economic system, the ability of Austrian governments to integrate and control social and economic trends is declining. Furthermore, the formation of a new coalition government, which includes a party that is widely seen as a prototype of right-wing populism (the FPÖ), introduces an additional factor. It remains to be seen to what extent the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) will succeed in controlling the government’s right-wing populist elements and the wider risk populism poses to the Austrian political system.
Membership rates in political parties are now lower than ever. At the same time, electoral volatility has increased as voting behavior grows increasingly less predictable, with the success of several new parties demonstrating the system’s adaptability. There has been widespread debate in recent years over instruments of direct democracy, such as popular initiatives, which could enhance the role of citizens in the policymaking process. However, greater direct democracy would make politics less predictable. The new government has included the introduction of such instruments in its agenda, but without clearly defining the instruments.
Old social partners
As a consequence of globalization and migration, social-partnership networks have lost some significance. Labor unions are playing less of a role in the economy, while globalization has meant the loss of traditional industries. As the Austrian economy is less and less an island led and controlled by Austrian institutions – from the government to the neocorporatist social partnership – the situation is indubitably changing. The new government also aims to reduce the role and importance of the so-called social partners in the Austrian political landscape. A growing number of young people, in particular those without higher education, are finding it increasingly difficult to access the labor market, while migrants often feel isolated and unable to improve their position within society.
Tensions around participation and integration
Austria also features contradictory tensions with regard to interest accommodation and societal participation. Austrian political parties have proved reluctant to criticize the xenophobic attitudes articulated by some influential print-media publications – and some parties (especially the FPÖ) are instrumentalizing xenophobic attitudes. Fears of losing votes have trumped concerns regarding participation, which has left Austria without an effective integration policy.
Austrian society and its political system are changing. Long considered to have one of the most stable party systems in Europe, Austria is increasingly subject to political polarization and voter volatility. Policymakers have yet to respond credibly to these developments, which underscores that the risks posed by growing instability are not being taken seriously.
Ruth Wodak, “The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean”. SAGE (Los Angeles 2015)