Period of political turbulence
With regard to some of the established indicators of political stability, Austrian politics has been marked by major turbulence recently. As in most other countries, this can be partially attributed to the complex and unprecedented challenges that arose due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, other developments related more specifically to Austrian domestic politics. After the spectacular presidential elections of 2016, the formation of an ÖVP-FPÖ government in the aftermath of the 2017 parliamentary election and its early implosion in mid-2019 following “Ibizagate,” the 2019 election – which led to the formation in January 2020 of Austria’s first ÖVP-Green federal government – seemed to signal that the country had finally come to a rest.
Chancellor leaves the political stage
However, while the ÖVP-Green government remains in office at the time of writing, the previously unchallenged, key political actor of the recent revolution in Austrian electoral politics – Chancellor and ÖVP party leader Sebastian Kurz – left the political stage in late 2021. The spectacular nature of these developments is reflected in the unusual frequency of change in the office of chancellor. Though 2021 was not an election year in Austria, the country nevertheless witnessed three different incumbents that year: Sebastian Kurz (until October 2021), Alexander Schallenberg (October–December 2021) and Karl Nehammer (since December 2021), all representing the ÖVP. Accounting for the non-party caretaker chancellorship of Brigitte Bierlein (from mid-2019 to early 2020), the country has had no less than six different chancellors in just five-and-a-half years (excluding two interim caretaker chancellors, Reinhold Mitterlehner in 2016 and Hartwig Löger in 2019).
New influence for Green
party; declining labor-union power
party; declining labor-union power
Even in an era of the advanced personalization of politics, public policies in parliamentary democracies tend to reflect the party complexion of the government coalition rather than the political will of any individual leader. The period 2020 through to early 2022 was, unsurprisingly, shaped by the joint political agenda of the ÖVP-Green government. That is, in terms of public policy, the replacement of the FPÖ by the Greens as the ÖVP’s junior coalition partner had, overall, a stronger impact on the nature of Austrian public policy than the continuation of the Kurz chancellorship until late 2021. This can also be explained by the compartmentalized structure of the Austrian political executive, in which individual ministers (in particular those not belonging to the chancellor’s party) enjoy considerable leeway. Despite the ÖVP’s dominant position in this governing coalition, the “Green factor” can be clearly identified in several areas, ranging from environmental and transport policies to tax reform. This is not to deny that in several areas, relating to immigration, developmental aid and gender in particular, several established Green positions remained unrealized. In addition, the weaking of the trade unions and other organizations related to labor, which had become a hallmark of the ÖVP-FPÖ government, continued into the third decade of the 21st century. Further, and perhaps surprisingly, Austria remained an awkward partner at the European level even after the FPÖ’s fall from power, although some improvements in that position have been noticed recently.
Major blow to rule
The “Ibiza affair” of 2019, and the successive developments (which eventually led to the resignation of Chancellor Kurz from all political offices in late 2021), marked a major blow to the rule of law in Austria. However, with hindsight these episodes also testify to the limits to which (proven or alleged) violations of the law are tolerated by other political players and Austrian society at large. While Kurz had long been one of the most popular politicians in the country’s recent political history, a majority of Austrians were eventually in favor of seeing him leave.
Pandemic transforming society; federal structure hampered crisis management
The coronavirus pandemic that broke in early 2020 became both an exceptional burden to the government and society, and a major catalyst for innovation and change. On the one hand, the series of four “lockdowns” (between early 2020 and late 2021), and plans to introduce mandatory vaccinations revealed in late 2021, not only turned the FPÖ into an increasingly isolated “fundamental opposition party,” but also gave rise to different forms of social protest, which had previously not been a defining feature of the country’s political history. More than ever before, the effects of the propagandistic nature of social media and other new information channels, not to say pure misinformation, which contributed to the rise of social unrest in certain strata of the population, became increasingly evident. Further, the pandemic also became a testing ground for the government’s communication policies, which increasingly failed to satisfy citizens. It became clear that the federal nature of the distribution of powers in Austria did not contribute to the efficient management of the crisis in the country. On the other hand, the pandemic became a catalyst for an entirely new chapter in government-expert relations and, more importantly, boosted wide-ranging digitalization efforts, where Austria’s government is seriously lagging behind.