Progressive Futures

A long goodbye to the grand coalition: The 2016 Austrian presidential election

29 April 2016

The strong first-round showing of the populist Freedom party's presidential candidate shows a distinct shift in Austrian politics

“This is the beginning of a new political era,” said Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the right-wing populist Freedom party (FPÖ) after their candidate Norbert Hofer came a clear first with 36 per cent of the vote in the first round of the Austrian presidential elections last Sunday. He was right.

Traditionally, political scientists considered the Austrian presidential election a ‘second-order election’. And rightly so: in practice, the president is no more than a ceremonial figurehead. The 2016 presidential election, however, is not merely about electing a new federal president. The outcome of the first election round is above all the most powerful expression to date of the transformation the Austrian political landscape underwent in the last three decades. This consists of the erosion of the duopoly between the two historical major parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Christ Democrats/Conservatives (ÖVP).

For most of the postwar era, the SPÖ and ÖVP governed in a grand coalition. And each president since 1945 was either a member of one of those parties, or an independent candidate who enjoyed the support of one of the parties. A brief glance at the results of previous presidential elections suffices to understand how dominant SPÖ and ÖVP were. Until 2016, the candidates of the two parties together received far more than two thirds of the vote, sometimes even more than 90 per cent. This time, however, both major parties — or perhaps more accurately their candidates — fell below the 15 per cent mark, receiving less than one third of the vote altogether — an unambiguous signal that public discontent with the parties has reached an all-time peak.

There are a number of reasons explaining this trend: the erosion of traditional societal camps (often called Lagermentalität in Austria); decreasing economic growth and increasing unemployment; the salience of the immigration issue; and, last but certainly not least, pervasive public disaffection with the ‘party cartel’ of SPÖ and ÖVP and its entrenched system of party patronage.

Even if the magnitude of the FPÖ candidate’s victory caused a big splash in Austria — the second-strongest candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, garnered a paltry 21 per cent of the vote — from a comparative perspective the extraordinary stability of the Austrian political system until today appears in fact more intriguing than its emerging transformation. A quick look at the transformations of parliamentary power relations in such diverse countries as the UK (Thatcherite revolution), Italy (Tangentopoli), Denmark (1973 earthquake elections) or even Germany (repeated left-right shifts) reveals that the relative continuity that prevailed in Austrian politics is really quite exceptional. Even though continuous electoral losses incrementally undermined their dominant position, SPÖ and ÖVP would remain in government for the majority of the last three decades.

Seen in this light, it should strike us that SPÖ and ÖVP managed to hold onto power for so long (and govern reasonably well), not that they have gradually been losing support in recent times. The accelerated erosion of the seemingly eternal grand coalition is by no means counterintuitive or surprising: it is an expression of a more general cross-national trend towards party system fragmentation in the whole of Europe.

Who benefits from the erosion of the grand coalition? As the result of the presidential election indicates, the main beneficiary is the right-wing populist Freedom party (FPÖ). The FPÖ’s support is steadily growing:  for more than a year it has led every representative poll, being consistently backed by around 30 per cent of the respondents. The SPÖ and ÖVP are trailing by five-eight points. Like other parties of this kind, the FPÖ’s success strategy involves a mix of anti-establishment and anti-immigrant rhetoric. However, the party is increasingly trying to present itself as more moderate and electable. The party’s presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, embodies this shift in strategy. He appears calm and is often described as his party’s “friendly face”.

If this trend persists, it is far from unlikely that the FPÖ will win the next general election in 2018, and so provide the next chancellor of Austria. This possible scenario has been a major topic of debate in the 2016 presidential campaign, since Alexander Van der Bellen, the former chairman of the Green party who came in second place in Sunday’s presidential election, announced that he would make use of the president’s formal powers to block a coalition led by the FPÖ. Van der Bellen said that he considers the FPÖ’s position on the European Union — the FPÖ may generally be considered as Eurosceptic — incompatible with the constitutionally entrenched commitment to the EU and ultimately detrimental to Austria’s interests.

Tellingly, the scenario of Van der Bellen blocking a possible FPÖ-led government appears to be the most likely way of frustrating the FPÖ’s ambitions to hold office. It is certainly difficult to imagine that any other political party in the Austrian political system could provide a credible alternative to the populist right and successfully challenge the FPÖ in the political arena. This signals that the fragmentation of the party system is at least in part a result of massive political failure on the part of the political mainstream. SPÖ and ÖVP would do well to recognise that generic campaign slogans fabricated by excessively overpaid PR agencies and mere gesture politics will neverconvince voters to turn their back on the FPÖ. The only way in which they could possibly regain electoral attractiveness is through a radical break with the status quo. Most importantly, this must involve genuine intellectual and programmatic renewal, in the sense that mainstream parties have to offer voters again a clear and distinctive political vision that covers all the issues that are of concern to the electorate.

But SPÖ and ÖVP must also put their efforts and energies into rebuilding their long-lost connection with the citizenry. This cannot be done solely through party patronage, the strategy SPÖ and ÖVP traditionally pursued. Providing affiliated people with leadership positions is quite different from taking the political demands and concerns of the populace seriously. Rather, it must involve thoroughgoing reforms of the parties’ ossified party structures, moving away from the system of cadre hierarchy that undermines preference transmission from the bottom up.

To be sure, it has become almost commonplace to suggest these things. But at least in Austria, the need for party reforms has never been more urgent. If SPÖ and ÖVP fail to learn from the lesson of the 2016 presidential elections and remain unwilling or unable to transform their internal structures, they will soon not only be out of touch with the voters but unable to exercise political agency. But, in that case, few would shed a tear over that.


Photo credit: Ailura CC 3.0