Executive Summary

Populist elements complicate coalition
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 jure 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.
Political behavior growing less predictable
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
losing significance
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 neo-corporatist 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.
Polarization, volatility
the new normal
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.
“Old” party adapts to
new realities
The decline of predictability in Austrian politics was underlined by the elections of 2017. Several months before the elections, predictions based on public opinion polling suggested a tight competition between the SPÖ and FPÖ, with the ÖVP in third place. However, in just a few months, this situation changed dramatically. The ÖVP, under the new leadership of Sebastian Kurz, redefined itself and succeeded in overtaking the SPÖ and FPÖ. This result reflected the interest of a decisive proportion of the electorate to transform the existing system, as represented by the well-established coalition between the SPÖ and ÖVP. Consequently, a party previously identified with the “old” system became the beneficiary of the transformation and credible enough to create a “new” system.
Open question as to
future orientation
This “new” system faces a volatile situation regarding the decline of the neo-corporatist system of social partnership and increasing social fragmentation, made visible by the difficulties of accepting cultural fragmentation. This challenge will influence Austria’s orientation within the European Union, with the country following either the mainstream tendency of “deepening” the European Union (i.e., shifting power from the member states to the union) or the tendency of the Visegrád group (i.e., opposing deeper European integration).
Ruth Wodak, “The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean.” SAGE (Los Angeles 2015)

Fritz Plasser, Franz Sommer, “Die Nationalratswahl 2017 als Richtungswahl. Determinanten und Motive der Wahlentscheidung 2017.” In: Andreas Khol et al., Österreichisches Jahrbuch für Politik. Böhlau (Wien 2018), pp. 3 – 28
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