Austria

   
 

Executive Summary

Populist element adds
new volatility
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, in 2017, the formation of a new coalition government, which included the FPÖ – widely seen as a party of right-wing populism – introduced an additional factor, namely volatility, which has affected both electoral behavior and increasingly government stability.
Right-wing party forced out of coalition
For the third time (after 1993 – 1996 and 2000 – 2002), the FPÖ was unable to use an opportunity to become (or at least to be seen as) a “mainstream” center-right party. In summer 2019, the party forced (indirectly and unwillingly) its partner to cancel the parties’ cooperation arrangement on the government level. In the following elections, the FPÖ lost significantly – and its (former) partner, the ÖVP, won a clear plurality of votes and seats in parliament. In combination with several scandals, defined as “singular cases,” the FPÖ’s roots – coming out of the tradition of Austrian Nazism – were more widely discussed than in previous decades.
New electoral realities
The outcome of the 2019 elections underlines one traditional and one not so traditional aspect. First, a new coalition government cannot be established without the ÖVP due to the unwillingness of the former opposition parties to ally with the FPÖ. In other words, there can be no government majority without the ÖVP. The not so traditional aspect concerns electoral volatility, as evident in the resurgence of the Greens two years after the party’s defeat in the 2017 elections. It is possible that the Greens could act as “king maker,” even when the king – Sebastian Kurz, the ÖVP chairman and former chancellor – is de facto undisputed.
Nontraditional political activities on the rise
Traditional political activities (like party membership) are still in decline, but non-traditional activities are on the rise. Protest movements, not linked or controlled by a political party, are very visible, such as protests directed against the far-right and, especially in 2019, activities focused on environmental (e.g., climate) issues. Discussions on formalizing the role of non-traditional channels of political participation (e.g., by lowering the threshold for organizing formal plebiscites, as in Switzerland) remain ongoing, but have not (yet) resulted in significant legal (constitutional) changes.
Social partners losing importance
As a consequence of Europeanization, globalization and migration, social-partnership networks have lost some significance. Labor unions are playing less of a role in the economy, while globalization has led to a decline in traditional industries. As the Austrian economy is less and less led and controlled by Austrian institutions (whether government or neo-corporatist) the situation is changing. The ÖVP-FPÖ government succeeded in some sectors in reducing 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.
Xenophobic statements tolerated
Austria also features contradictory tensions with regard to accommodating interests and societal participation. Some sectors of Austrian politics 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. Fear of losing votes has inflated concerns regarding the ability or willingness of migrants to integrate, concerns that have prevented the development of a coherent, consistent and effective integration policy.
Increasing polarization, volatility
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 electoral volatility. Policymakers have yet to respond credibly to these developments, which underscores that the risks posed by growing instability are not being taken seriously.
Age, education are new key political factors
The 2019 elections underlined that politics in Austria is influenced by cleavages which are district from the traditional right-left divide. Generation, education and gender have become the decisive factors in explaining political behavior. Comparatively new parties (the Greens, the NEOS) disproportionally represent young, better-educated and female voters. Meanwhile, the divide between cosmopolitan “no-wheres” and anti-cosmopolitan “somewheres” has become more visible, and has influenced attitudes in Austria to “deepening” the European Union.
Chancellor’s personality
is success factor
The main lesson to be learned from 2019 (at least for the moment) is that personality dominates. There is consensus among analysts that the ÖVP’s success has been based on the popularity of Sebastian Kurz. Kurz seems to represent an attractive mix of (moderate) populism and centrism, and has adopted a strategy that presents himself as something “new” without defining the substance of this particular newness, besides his person. As this personality-based newness cannot be exploited indefinitely, this “new” system will be a short-term rather than long-term recipe for electoral success.
Citations:
Fiddler, Allyson, “The Art of Resistance. Cultural Protest against the Austrian Far-Right in the Early twenty-First Century.” Berghahn (New York 2019)

Fritz Plasser, Franz Sommer, “Wahlen im Schatten der Flüchtlingskrise. Parteien, Wähler und Koalitionen im Umbruch.” facultas (Wien 2018)

Margit Reiter, “Die Ehem,aligen. Der Nationalsozialismus und die Anfänge der FPÖ.” Wallstein (Göttingen 2019)

Ruth Wodak, “The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean.” SAGE (Los Angeles 2015)
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