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Austria: no easy coalition for Kurz

Maria Maltschnig
Director, Karl-Renner-Institut

Conservatives and Greens scored well in the Austrian elections, while the Social Democrats fell to a historic low. The previously strong far-right finally stumbled over its numerous scandals.

Until last Sunday, most political analysts agreed that events that occur less than ten days before an election don’t lead to significant changes in the results. Austria however proved them wrong. While all polls predicted the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) to remain relatively stable after the “Ibiza-Scandal” and the conservatives (ÖVP) to profit moderately from FPÖ-losses, the FPÖ suffered a major defeat and fell from 26% to 16% of the votes. The conservatives however gained another 6% and landed at 37%. In the week prior the elections the news was full of reports about obscenely high expenses the FPÖ granted its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache over the years, in order to enable his luxurious lifestyle. As a result, many former FPÖ voters stayed at home or voted for the conservatives.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) fell to a historic low with the predicted 21%. The second big winner of the day was the Green party. After failing to cross the 4% threshold to enter the parliament in the previous elections in 2017, they reached their historic high at almost 14%.

On the positive side, the right block lost around 4% and conservatives, far-right and Liberals together lost their constitutional majority. This is important as their joint attempt before the elections to lay down a fiscal break in the constitution will most probably not be successful.

The former chancellor and conservative lead candidate Sebastian Kurz seems to be in a comfortable position. He can choose between three two-party-coalitions: with the Social Democrats, the Greens as well as continuing the coalition with the far-right. But forming a government might be complicated. After its major defeat, the Freedom Party announced they don’t feel they have the voters’ mandate to enter a coalition. And Sebastian Kurz’ aversion against the Social Democrats is so deeply rooted that it seems almost impossible to agree on a common government. A conservative-green government would face less obstacles. The green habitus (and electorate) is rather bourgeois and thus not as alien to the conservatives – and it is the favourite constellation for both liberal and conservative media. But as Sebastian Kurz’ electorate has become more right-wing and the Green program consists of ambitious climate policy and a liberal migration agenda, either one or both parties will have to give up substantial parts of their policies. 

For the Social Democrats the actual question is not so much whether to be part of the government or not, but how to move on after such a dramatically weak result. The lead candidate Pamela Rendi-Wagner made strong appearances in countless TV-debates. The campaign was appealing and the election program progressive and ambitious. Nevertheless, many voters switched (back) to the Greens. Frustrated former Freedom Party – voters stayed at home or moved to the conservatives. Conservatives lost a significant number of voters to the liberals. Liberals in turn lost voters to the Green party. In the end, every political party but the Social Democrats did benefit from the far-right defeat.

Most obviously SPÖ lacks an attractive narrative. No other party has a similarly detailed, ambitious and convincing program for housing, health care, the future of work and matters of inequality. But good policy-proposals are apparently not enough to win elections. While the conservatives tell a story of identity and leadership, the Greens profit from a “Fridays for Future” momentum. If Social Democrats want to win future elections, they must develop a strong and mobilising narrative, speaking not only to people’s minds, but also to their hearts.

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