How Austrian Politics Went From Over-Stability to Unpredictability

Alexander Van der Bellen is sworn in as Austria's president at parliament, Vienna, Jan. 26, 2017 (AP photo by Ronald Zak).
Alexander Van der Bellen is sworn in as Austria's president at parliament, Vienna, Jan. 26, 2017 (AP photo by Ronald Zak).
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Austria’s democracy, for decades one of the most stable political systems in Europe, is entering a new period of uncertainty. The balance between left and right—developed after its experiences with authoritarianism in the 1930s and seven years of totalitarian Nazi rule—is probably coming to an end. The tradition of power-sharing arrangements between two major parties that has defined Austria for most of its postwar history seems to have lost its appeal. Snap parliamentary elections, scheduled for October, could be a decisive turning point for Austrian politics.

This does not mean that the country’s liberal democracy is in danger. Rather, Austria’s political culture, still comfortably within a democratic framework, is in a process of significant of reorientation. It is becoming less stable, but possibly more open for innovation.

The current ruling coalition government—which since 2006 has consisted of the two traditional major parties, the center-left Social Democratic Party and center-right Austrian People’s Party—has declared that its internal contradictions are unbridgeable. More importantly, there is a general coalition fatigue that convinced theSocial Democrats and People’s Party to dissolve parliament in May, looking for new majorities. The National Council, the most politically decisive chamber of the Austrian Parliament, will be elected on Oct. 15, one year earlier than originally scheduled. Now that the governing, bipartisan alliance has come to an end, all observers agree that a relaunch of the “grand coalition” in its current form is almost out of the question.

In its absence, the third major party, the far-right Freedom Party, would become kingmaker. The other parties in parliament, the Green Party and the liberal New Austria and Liberal Forum, known as the Neos, are considered too small to form a majority coalition either with the Social Democrats or the People’s Party. That, coupled with the strict proportionality of Austria’s electoral system—which makes it de facto impossible for any party to win an overall majority and form a one-party Cabinet—gives the October elections heightened significance.

This looming period of uncertainty is the result of a transformation of the party system, defined by the decline of the Social Democrats and People’s Party. Both parties had dominated Austrian politics since 1945. But they have become less and less able to mobilize the number of voters they were accustomed to attracting during the decades that followed 1945.

Since the 1980s, in particular, Austrians’ electoral behavior has become more volatile. What was once an almost perfectly predictable party system has changed—not overnight, but in an ongoing process of voter realignment. A system criticized for its paralyzing stability has made space for a landscape defined by mobility and unpredictability, to the detriment of the Social Democrats and People’s Party, and the benefit of the Freedom Party and the Greens.

The Social Democrats and People’s Party both recently changed their party leaders in an effort toward renewal, with the former electing Christian Kern as party chairman in 2016—making him chancellor of the coalition Cabinet—and the latter nominating Sebastian Kurz, the 30-year-old foreign minister in the coalition government, as party leader in May. Kern and Kurz will compete for the chancellorship, with the Freedom Party’s Heinz Christian Strache the third feature of this triangulated landscape.

What was once an almost perfectly predictable party system has changed—not overnight, but in an ongoing process of voter realignment.

According to the Austrian constitution and the rules of its parliamentary system, the leader of the party with most seats in parliament will not automatically become chancellor—nor will voters make that choice directly. Instead, the chancellor is decided through a bargaining process after the elections in which coalitions are formed. Nevertheless, the leader of the strongest party usually holds the best cards in that process.

The Decline of Consociationalism

The electoral trend over the past three decades has undermined what was once a prototype of “consociational democracy.” Austria’s political culture, like Switzerland’s, was defined by power-sharing rather than the winner-takes-all system common in other democracies. In Austria, the winner accepts the loser as a participant in a power cartel, although at times neither the winner nor the loser is clearly defined.

In contrast to Switzerland’s system, Austria’s consociational democracy has not implied a permanent coalition of the same parties. Between 1966 and 1986, and again between 2000 and 2006, there were one-party governments or else an alliance between either the Social Democrats or Peopel’s Party with the Freedom Party. Austria’s consociationalism was not so much defined by an all-embracing party alliance but by a corporatist network of economic interest groups: labor, business and agriculture. This “social partnership” was linked to the party system—organized labor was dominated by the left-of-center Social Democrats, and business and agriculture by the conservative People’s Party.

This network, however, has increasingly lost its footing. Austrian labor unions, still among the best-organized in Europe, have been challenged by Europeanization and globalization. The Austrian “chamber” system, in which professional organizations have a legally enforced cap on their members, has been criticized for being incompatible with the principles of a society defined by a market economy and individual choice. And as soon as third parties started to rise, the “social partnership” became less and less able to guarantee the political culture of power-sharing.

The political mobility that eroded the predictability of the Austrian system and precipitated the end of the coalition this year has been in the making for decades, and is deeply rooted in broader transformations within Austrian society.

To begin with, the expansion of Austria’s party system—a shift away from the Social Democrats and People’s Party and toward third parties—is the result of demographic changes. The traditional behemoths responsible for the political culture of consociationalism are disproportionally preferred by older voters, and have been less and less able to mobilize the younger generations who strongly back the Freedom Party, Greens and Neos. Because Austrian society is aging, the youth vote may not seem so decisive. But younger voters are less predictable, especially concerning turnout, making them an important focus for parties during the campaign period.

The political mobility that eroded the predictability of the Austrian system and precipitated the end of the coalition this year has been in the making for decades.

This must also be seen as part of a larger pattern. For most of the 20th century, the Social Democrats and People’s Party had functioned as the political expressions of highly ideological social groups defined by class and religion. The Social Democrats were seen as the party of the working class, while the People’s Party was defined by the tradition of political Catholicism. Both represented two very different social groups distinguished over decades by loyalties expressed not only in electoral behavior, but also in very different social attitudes.

This has changed, not least because of the successes of democracy. After 1945, Austria’s political system stabilized postwar society. Since then, the country has become a “mainstreamed” part of Western Europe—both in its economic prosperity and its undisputable liberal democracy. This progress, politically represented by the two major parties, eroded the support base of the very same elitist cartel that was behind that success story. The Social Democrats and People’s Party made Austria a stable democracy. Now, with that success achieved, the younger generation is no longer a captive vote. Party competition has become more open, and electoral mobility has significantly increased.

After 1945, the concentration of support between the Social Democrats and the People’s Party made Austria more of a “party state” than other Western European democracies. Many citizens were card-carrying party members and expressed their deep loyalty by voting consistently over decades for the same party. But in the 1980s, the impact of a generational change on that assumed loyalty became obvious. Younger voters became more flexible and less likely to express the same kind of adherence to one party as their parents’ generation.

Today, political loyalty in Austria is less ideological and more secularized, coinciding with the waning influence of the Catholic Church and declining membership in the traditionally well-organized labor unions. Twenty-first century politics has become issue-oriented rather than the result of deeply rooted convictions, setting the tone for the lead-up to the October elections.

Austria’s Contemporary Right-Wing Populists

The party that benefits most from these developments is the Freedom Party. Unlike the Greens and the Neos, the Freedom Party has a long history. It represents Austria’s pan-German tradition, transformed and rebranded into patriotism. Established in 1956, the Freedom Party was formed by former Nazis for former Nazis. The first chairman of the party had until 1945 been a general in the Waffen SS—the armed wing of the Nazi party—and his successor also served voluntarily as an SS officer.

The Social Democrats and People’s Party made Austria a stable democracy. Now, with that success achieved, the younger generation is no longer a captive vote.

Over the first decades of its existence, the party tried to mainstream its image and, in the 1970s and 1980s, was even accepted as a “member of the family” of centrist European liberal parties. But it was unable to garner more than 5 to 7 percent of votes in national elections. This changed in 1986, when under then-leader Jorg Haider the party ended its strategy of mainstreaming and opted to become an anti-system party. Haider helped the Freedom Party attract a broader range of voters, especially young Austrians without college degrees. The party is now considered a successful model of European right-wing populism.

The Freedom Party’s electorate, until 1986 largely rural and middle class, also changed significantly. Since the late 1990s, the party has attracted more blue-collar voters, overtaking the Social Democrats as Austria’s No. 1 workers’ party. And like other far-right populist parties that have gained steam in Europe, the Freedom Party has been able to mobilize young, less-educated Austrians who feel left behind by globalization, Europeanization and modernization, and has played on fears of immigrants— especially Muslim immigrants.

Despite its 20th century roots, the Freedom Party defines itself as a “new” force, challenging the parties that form the cartel of Austrian politics, even though it has twice joined those parties in a coalition government—with the Social Democrats from 1983 to 1986, and with the People’s Party from 2000 to 2006. As it promotes its anti-establishment brand, of course, the party has no interest in being reminded of its pan-German and Nazi past.

The Freedom Party’s ability to portray itself as the party of globalization’s losers became evident in 2016, during Austria’s federal presidential election, when neither of the major-party candidates made the run-off. Instead, Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer faced former Green Party Chairman Alexander Van der Bellen. Fearing Hofer’s euroskepticism, most prominent social democrats and a significant number of prominent conservatives endorsed Van der Bellen, who went on to win.

Despite its 20th century roots, the Freedom Party defines itself as a “new” force, challenging the parties that form the cartel of Austrian politics, even though it has twice joined those parties in a coalition government.

The outcome underlined another cleavage in Austrian society, between a better-educated pro-EU constituency that is open to transnational approaches, and a less-educated anti-EU constituency that embraces an “Austria First” outlook and looks askance at a Europe without borders. During the 2013 parliamentary elections, for example, the Freedom Party did very well among less-educated Austrians, and especially among blue-collar voters.

Coming to Terms With the Past?

Measured by its electoral strength, the Freedom Party is one of the most successful parties among Europe’s right-wing populists, combining anti-elite, anti-establishment rhetoric with a nationalist, anti-immigration platform. Like the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Alternative for Germany and other European populist parties, the Freedom Party claims to defend “the people” against a self-interested political establishment, while also pushing an “us” against “them” narrative against foreigners invading Europe.

But unlike its counterparts in France, Germany or the Netherlands, the Freedom Party has specific ties to Austria’s anti-democratic past. Before 1918, Austria’s pan-German camp defended the privileges of ethnic Germans against the majority of non-Germans in the Habsburg Empire. After the foundation of the Austrian Republic as an almost exclusively German-speaking state, and into the 1930s, the pan-German camp became dominated by the Austrian Nazi party, itself controlled by the German Nazi party—a loyalty that helped shape the Freedom Party’s identity.

After 1956, the Freedom Party accepted Austria’s independence from Germany and the norms and rules of liberal democracy. Today, it expresses its patriotism through xenophobic rhetoric and, whenever regional or local coalition arrangements permit, anti-immigration policy. Within the established party system, the Freedom Party transforms its xenophobic rhetoric into specific policies, such as advocating for segregation of immigrant children in public schools.

Unlike its counterparts in France, Germany or the Netherlands, the Freedom Party has specific ties to Austria’s anti-democratic past.

More broadly speaking, and echoing other right-wing populist parties in Europe, the Freedom Party’s international outlook is isolationist. This is reflected in its opposition to globalization, and notably its hostility toward free trade agreements. While the party’s anti-globalization positions cannot be directly traced to its Nazi roots, its origins in the 1950s as the voice of former Nazis continues to be a stigma. Today, party representatives speak openly about the criminal character of Hitler’s regime, and have visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem on various occasions since 2000. Freedom Party representatives have also used their visits to consult with Israeli politicians, if only from the Israeli far right. But the party is extremely hesitant to discuss its origins as a political grouping of former prominent Nazis. This could be seen as the task of the next generation of party leaders.

The other traditional parties in Austria have already broached open debate about their links to the country’s past before and under the Nazi rule. During the final two decades of the 20th century, the Social Democrat-People’s Party coalition government officially redefined Austria’s role in the 1930s and 1940s, departing from the previously advanced “innocent victim” narrative and acknowledging the country as a society of perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Now, the Freedom Party must confront its own past if it is to put that past definitively behind it. This may not have any implications for the October elections, but it could impact the party’s ability to enter a coalition government thereafter.

The Impact of Europeanization and Globalization

With the United Kingdom in the throws of leaving the European Union, debates around Austria’s position in a united Europe have gained a new dimension. The general Austrian public opposes a similar exit—even the most euroskeptic voices, like the Freedom Party, insist that “leaving” is not an option. But what does “remaining” imply for Austria?

Between those who are decidedly pro-European and the staunchest euroskeptics exists a wide range of positions. One centers on the imbalance between Austria’s commitment to remain bound by its status of permanent neutrality and the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. As the clear majority of EU member states are also members of NATO, Austria’s position—shared by some smaller members such as Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Cyprus and Malta—seems to be of secondary importance, at least for Brussels.

The concept of Austria’s neutrality has outlived its geopolitical significance. But it has not outlived its domestic popularity.

But for domestic politics, it is a rather delicate problem: The status of neutrality is undeniably popular in Austria, and for the foreseeable future no party would dare question its relevance. The concept of Austria’s neutrality, shaped by its experience as a Central European country between two Cold War opponents, has outlived its geopolitical significance. But it has not outlived its domestic popularity.

This takes on particular relevance when it comes to securing the EU’s external borders in the context of the refugee and migrant crisis that peaked in 2015. As part of its attempts to address the crisis, the EU not only boosted its involvement in external border control, but also sought the support and assistance of NATO. While campaigning for October’s vote, Austrian parties haven’t touched on this explicitly. Instead, they have paid lip service to two potentially contradicting principles—the EU should take over border control, especially in the Mediterranean, but Austria must uphold its neutrality. As no party contradicts the need for Austria’s participation in European border control, nor can imagine effective border control without NATO, all Austrian parties try to live in both worlds, insisting on neutrality while accepting a policy that would make it obsolete.

Similar to other Western European democracies, however, the main partisan divergence in Austria today is between a nativist, nationalist, ethnic exclusiveness and a cosmopolitan openness. That split informs positions on European integration, with advocates of openness promoting the EU’s declarative goal of “an ever deeper union,” whereas defenders of closure demonize the EU as a bureaucratic monster impinging on Austrian sovereignty.

The distinction between “closed” and “open” is correlated with education levels and age, which have replaced class and religion as the defining variables of political behavior. This has shifted voting trends along Austria’s traditional left-right axis: Better-educated, younger Austrians—disproportionally those with a bourgeois background—tend to be cosmopolitan and gravitate toward the left-wing Greens. Their less-educated young counterparts with a blue-collar background increasingly tend to vote for the Freedom Party. The Social Democrats and the People’s Party seem to be caught in the middle, not satisfying the expectations of either the nativists or the cosmopolitans. This became especially visible when neither party succeeded in getting its candidate into the second-round runoff of the 2016 presidential election, which was instead contested by the Greens and the Freedom Party—Austria’s new political cleavage.

People walk by election posters for Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer, Vienna, Dec. 4, 2016 (AP photo by Ronald Zak).

“Closed,” then, has become the keyword for “globalization’s losers,” and “open” the keyword for its winners. The problem of Austrian politics is the need to bridge the gap between these two basic interests. Any new coalition government will have to find a balance to satisfy both.

Options for Coalition Building

The fate of a new coalition depends on the outcome of the Oct. 15 elections. Three parties have decided to replace their leaders, with the Social Democrats selecting Kern, the People’s Party making Kurz a candidate for the chancellorship, and the Greens placing Ulrike Lunacek, vice president of European Parliament, in the top position of its candidate list. In doing so, those parties intend to shift the campaign focus from issues to personalities. New candidates should make the two traditional parties—identified with old politics—more attractive for younger voters. Compared with these new faces, the Freedom Party’s chairman, Heinz Christian Strache, looks old. The party that has tried to position itself as the only alternative to “the system” may have lost some of its dynamism, as its competitors have tried to renew themselves, at least when it comes to their image. The Freedom Party has tried to make the best out of the situation, redefining Strache as the candidate of reliability.

Due to Austria’s electoral system of proportional representation, it is almost certain that there will be no clear victor in October. The decision of who will form a government will be made only after a time-consuming process of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors. But the party that receives the most votes—and the plurality of seats in parliament—will have a stronger bargaining position.

The Social Democrats and the People’s Party seem to be too frustrated with each other to form another government together, but an alternative “grand coalition”—although considerably less grand—cannot be ruled out. Both parties are looking for such an alternative. The People’s Party has never ruled out the prospect of governing with the Freedom Party, and under Kern’s leadership, the Social Democrats have begun to reconsider their refusal, since the end of their alliance with the Freedom Party in 1986, to consider any potential cooperation with the far-right formation after it adopted a more populist, extreme tone in the 1980s. The Social Democrats, who formed a coalition with the Freedom Party in the state of Burgenland in 2016, have redefined their position regarding possible coalition partners. Instead of its slogan of “all is possible—but not with the Freedom Party,” the Social Democrats have formulated a “criteria catalogue” defining conditions that must be accepted by any potential partner. The criteria are rather general, with the indirect message that even the Freedom Party would be welcome.

Sebastian Kurz speaks to the media after meeting with Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, Vienna, May 15, 2017 (AP photo by Ronald Zak).

Come October, it is highly probable that neither the Greens nor the Neos will be in a position to play kingmaker, and everything points to the Freedom Party filling that role. During the lead-up to the campaign, the debate has not been whether the party will be part of the next coalition, but who will be its partner. It is now in the enviable position of observing—and reacting to—how the two mainstream parties are positioning themselves in relation to its platform.

This is especially crucial for the Social Democrats. A generation of party activists is the main factor preventing the Freedom Party from governing, and to open the Social Democratic Party to a possible coalition with the Freedom Party has already created internal unrest. The possibility of an open split over divergences on the Freedom Party cannot be ruled out.

In that respect, the People’s Party is in a much more comfortable position. The most recent positions articulated by Kurz, its young new party leader, are not too different from the Freedom Party’s. He has called for stricter immigration policy and openly praised Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, Victor Orban, while criticizing German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Other remarks concerning Muslim community institutions, like a Muslim kindergarten in Vienna, for example, are playing to an anti-Islam mood in a way that would not raise eyebrows coming from the Freedom Party’s leader.

Come October, it is highly probable that neither the Greens nor the Neos will be in a position to play kingmaker, and everything points to the Freedom Party filling that role.

The Freedom Party’s almost-guaranteed role as kingmaker is nevertheless surprising, given how voters rallied around Van der Bellen, the Green, to block the Freedom Party’s Hofer in the 2016 presidential election. Less than a year later, the Social Democrats and People’s Party will compete in a race likely to be decided by the Freedom Party.

Why the Freedom Party Could Shape Austrian Politics

The political changes that loom are not only about the Freedom Party as kingmaker, however, but about the party becoming king. Strache has made it clear that, should the party secure a plurality of seats in the new parliament, he himself must be chancellor. In that case, the Social Democrats and People’s Party would have to compete for the role of junior partner in a coalition government led by the Freedom Party. This makes the October elections a tripartite competition, as much as a run for the top position, a first in the history of Austria’s democracy.

The Social Democrats’ long-standing refusal to work with the Freedom Party meant that potential coalitions were limited to an alliance between the People’s Party and Freedom Party, which occurred from 2000 to 2006, and between the Social Democrats and People’s Party, such as the one that governed since then. Today, in opening the door to a potential coalition with the Freedom Party, the Social Democrats have also ushered in a more unpredictable situation. The most interesting question will be whether the party is punished or rewarded for its new openness.

Today’s landscape could also benefit the Greens and, perhaps, the Neos. The two smaller parties in Austria’s parliament share an identical pro-European position—and for that reason they both oppose the Freedom Party. Although they differ on the economy—the Neos are pro-business and the Greens critical of neoliberalism—both will try to win over the mainstream parties’ voters, arguing that the traditional formations have become too opportunistic in their attempt to woo the Freedom Party. During the campaign, the Greens and the Neos have labeled the Social Democrats and People’s Party prototypes of “populism light”—not too different than the ideology the Freedom Party represents.

The People’s Party nod to euroskeptic populism is evident in its proposed policy to restrict certain social benefits for non-Austrian EU citizens who work in Austria but have family living elsewhere in the EU. For its part, the Social Democrats are proposing to limit EU citizens’ access to the Austrian labor market. In both cases, the debate is about whether those laws, if passed, would contradict European law; they obviously go against the spirit of the European Single Market, the core of European integration. The Freedom Party argues, with some credibility, that the other two parties have taken points directly from its platform. After the October elections, this new “populism light” could make it easier for some voters to find common ground with the Freedom Party’s more hard-line agenda.

However, the two pro-EU parties are unlikely to finish in a position to form a government. Instead, a coalition of parties representing different shades of euroskeptic populism will do so, making Austria’s position within the EU more difficult. Already, some European politicians—including EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel—have criticized their Austrian counterparts for rhetoric they saw as motivated by domestic politics, although admittedly the Austrians would not be the first to bash the EU for political gain back home.

Whatever the outcome in October, the electoral results, when expressed in a coalition agreement, will be less predictable than those of the past. With the country’s traditional moderate parties veering to the right and the Freedom Party more empowered than some might have expected, the extreme predictability that long defined Austrian politics is unraveling. The result could be a less balanced coalition, or perhaps a government that looks less Austrian—and more Italian.

Anton Pelinka is professor of nationalism studies and political science at the Central European University in Budapest. From 1975 to 2006, he was professor of political science at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. He has published on Austrian politics, European integration and democratic theory.

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