Key Challenges

Power seeking replaces policymaking
It is a popular assumption that centralization is likely to increase the strategic capacity of governments, and lead to better and more sustainable policies. This option has been highlighted in previous SGI country reports for Austria, and the coronavirus pandemic has intensified calls for more centralized structures and coherent nationwide policies. However, a closer look suggests that there might not always be a direct correlation between more centralized structures and better policies. For one thing, some of the traditionally most centralized democratic regimes, such as the United Kingdom, can hardly be seen as a role model (anymore). In addition, Austria became a prime example of personalization-driven de facto centralization in the absence of constitutional reform, which was however more a showcase of successful power-seeking than of particularly successful policymaking. The leader-centered, control-seeking “System Kurz,” which emerged in 2017, finally failed in late 2021.
Party character defines possibilities
The recent improvements in terms of sustainable policies documented in this report suggest that further improvements should be possible within the constitutional/institutional boundaries of the extant regime. Sustainable policies are chiefly dependent on the political actors’ agenda and their willingness to stick to their pledges, and less so on any particular institutional devices. Political parties committed to sustainable policies and international cooperation (e.g., the Greens) are more likely to support such policies when in government than parties with a backward-looking and nationalist agenda (e.g., the FPÖ).
Room for institutional reform
That said, there is obviously some room for institutional reform. To the extent that policies are of a cross-departmental nature, the creation of additional interministerial decision-making structures (exemplified in the area of youth policies) could well have beneficial effects. The intra-power structure of the Austrian federation will also have to be sorted out, allowing for swifter decision-making and more coherent policies.
Trust a key factor
Beyond possible institutional reform in the narrower sense, a key factor determining the fate of sustainable policies in Austria will be effective government communication – effective less in terms of securing power and more in terms of generating genuine trust. As political communication is a two-sided phenomenon, successful government communication will depend on citizens’ ability and willingness to listen and make sense of what decision-makers have to say.
Civic education needed;
debate on inclusion
lies ahead
This implies that one of the areas in need of reform is civic education, with the overarching aim of improving the state of political knowledge among the resident population and fostering genuine interest in politics. Furthermore, propaganda and pure misinformation – mostly in social media, but also in more traditional media channels – has to be targeted more directly by future policies, although always within the boundaries of freedom of speech. A more particular topic worth addressing by new civic education programs is the concept of sustainability, in particular with regard to the environment. There is widespread confusion in Austria about extended outdoor activities (hiking and skiing in particular), and nature preservation/conversation and related ecological behaviors. Yet another key issue concerns the idea of democracy among Austrians, which is strikingly exclusive, as a recent public opinion survey found. A large majority of Austrian citizens continue to be in favor of keeping the acquisition of Austrian nationality (a prerequisite for full political participation rights) difficult and demanding, a majority of Austrians are also strongly against granting equal political rights to long-term residents from other EU member states, and about 20% of the youngest respondents are even in favor of depriving older citizens of their right to vote. These findings alone strongly suggest that immigration and inclusion will be major issues to be sorted out on the country’s way to the next level of democratic and sustainable governance. The third finding suggests that future governments will also have to be careful not to further endanger peace, and respectful of relations between different generations by using an ever growing share of taxes to finance pensions at the expense of education and other key fields of public policy.
Call for more democracy in parties
To the extent that Austria’s future is believed to be tied to representative democracy – for which there is good reason, not least because many Austrians have clear expectations regarding the typical policy effects of advanced forms of Swiss-style direct democracy – an extension of intra-party democracy (in contrast to strictly leader-centered intra-party power structures) will be needed. Guaranteeing a reasonable level of media pluralism, and defending “critical journalism” against “infotainment” and populist agitation will have to be high on the agenda of future governments and decision-makers. For all the well-known difficulties involved, this will also have to include attempts to establish a viable regime for controlling violations of human dignity in social media.
COVID-19 driving distrust in government
Last but not least, Austrian governments and society at large will be kept busy by the coronavirus pandemic for many months, if not years, to come. Austria was the first European country to announce the introduction of a general mandatory vaccination regime in November 2021. However, the medical, judicial, ethical and social issues involved may have been underestimated. At the time of writing, COVID-19 seemed set to remain a major catalyst for growing public distrust in government, as well as social unrest and divide.
Helms, Ludger & David Wineroither (Hrsg,): “Die österreichische Demokratie im Vergleich.” 2. Auflage. Baden-Baden: Nomos 2017.

Helms, Ludger, Warum der Parlamentarismus nicht ausgespielt hat, in: Theo Öhlinger & Klaus Poier (Hrsg.), Direkte Demokratie und Parlamentarismus: Wie kommen wir zu den besten Entscheidungen?, Wien: Böhlau, 2015, S. 135-151.

Party Polarization

Most parties shifting leftward
According to data from the WZB-based Manifesto Project, all major Austrian parties, except the Greens, have moved toward the left of the political spectrum over the past three or four years (having previously moved strongly to the right). This implies that the policy differences between the major parties remained largely unchanged.
Polarizing right-wing
However, a closer look reveals a more complex picture. Party polarization has changed in recent years, although not in a unilinear direction across different policy fields. The FPÖ – widely considered to be the prototype of a right-wing populist or even right-wing extremist party – has become more moderate in some fields (e.g., concerning its attitude toward Austria’s EU membership), but not in others (e.g., the role and status of Islam in Austria). Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the FPÖ turned into a fiercely polarizing force, mobilizing street protests against the government’s coronavirus policies. Under its leader Sebastian Kurz (elected in 2017), the ÖVP moved significantly to the right in some policy fields, aligning closely with established FPÖ policy stances, particularly on immigration issues. The political stances and rhetoric of the other parties has changed considerably less.
Volatility in the center
Recent parliamentary elections have underscored these ambiguous patterns of party (and electoral) polarization. In the 2019 elections, the ÖVP gained votes and seats, expanding its status as the largest party (which it has held since 2017). However, most of the ÖVP’s gains came at the expense of its (former) coalition partner, the FPÖ. The other big winner, the Greens, gained largely at the expense of the SPÖ and the Liste Pilz (a party of Green dissidents, which disappeared from parliament following the elections). That is, electoral volatility occurred almost exclusively within the center-right and center-left camps, rather than across the political spectrum.
Compromise more difficult than in past
The 2019 parliamentary election eventually led to the formation of a genuinely new government, the first ÖVP-Green federal government in the country’s history. While the formation of this government testifies to the parties’ willingness and ability to set aside polarizing strategies in order to form a viable governing coalition, it is still true that wide-ranging policy compromises between left-wing and center/right-wing parties have become more difficult to achieve than in the past. The coronavirus pandemic initially generated a “rally around the flag” effect, marked by a notable willingness among opposition parties (in particular the SPÖ) to support government policies. However, this effect withered as the pandemic wore on. (Score: 7)
Eberl, Jakob-Moritz, Lena Maria Huber & Carolina Plescia (2020) A tale of firsts: the 2019 Austrian snap election, West European Politics, 43:6, 1350-1363, DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2020.1717836


Jenny, Marcelo/Müller, Wolfgang C., Dynamik der parlamentarischen Opposition in der Corona-Krise, Blog 106, Universität Wien,
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