At first glance, it looks like not much changed in the Austrian elections to the European Parliament compared to 2014. The center-right ÖVP came in first place again, though with considerable gains of eight percent; everyone else basically came in exactly where they had come in before, with the social democrats in second place, the far-right FPÖ losing three per cent to come in third place, and the Greens on the fourth place with 14 percent.
The comparison with 2014 may nonetheless be misleading. The party landscape within Austria and the international political climate are both very different today, post-Trump, post-Brexit. The comparison with the last national elections in 2017, while still imperfect, gives a better sense of which direction the results point in: while the ÖVP has gained three percent and the SPÖ has lost as much, the far right is down a whopping nine percent, and the left-liberal Green Party has gained more than ten percent.
A simple explanation for some of these shifts is the Ibiza Affair, which made headlines around the world. Mere days before the European Elections, two German newspapers simultaneously published a video of (now ex-)Vice Chancellor H.C. Strache of the FPÖ on a villa on the island of Ibiza, in a state of intoxication, attempting to sell public contracts in exchange for illegal campaign donations to an attractive women pretending to be an Eastern European investor. It is still not clear who made the video and why it was leaked at this particular time. In the days following the publication, Strache stepped down as Vice Chancellor. ÖVP Chancellor Sebastian Kurz subsequently demanded that Strache’s party fire the Minister of the Interior, party ideologue and éminence grise Herbert Kickl, as his office would have been in charge of investigating the affair. When the FPÖ refused, the coalition between the two parties collapsed.
Kurz nonetheless has to be counted as one of the beneficiaries of the affair. When his mentor Wolfgang Schüssel first formed a coalition with the far right as Chancellor in 2000, the FPÖ soon dropped in the polls, allowing the ÖVP to dominate the coalition. This was not the case this time around. Even when the far-right backed highly unpopular policies—like the possibility of a 12h workday—that one would expect to hurt their core constituency, they stayed strong in the polls. Their ministers often dominated the headlines and drove the governmental agenda in a much more aggressive way than eighteen years before. Kurz is nothing if not a smart, calculating tactician with a keen sense for power and opportunities to take it. When the Ibiza affair broke, he saw a chance to deal a blow to the coalition partner he had not been able to control well before, and he used it.
A similar story played out at a regional level. The social democrat H.P. Doskozil, a governor of Burgenland who had previously pushed his party towards a collaboration with the far right, suddenly declared himself shocked, shocked to discover that corruption is going on in the FPÖ. Feeling the tide turning, he ended the regional coalition between social democrats and the far-right.
The poor results of the Green Party in the 2017 elections had their proximate cause in an internal schism. An older key member of the party, Peter Pilz, had started his own movement, advocating a left-populist approach initially, but then also trying to steal votes from the right with jabs towards Muslim extremism. His list in this year’s European elections did not gain any seats, and his fraction in the Austrian parliament have mostly made headlines for their own vicious infighting. Perhaps the Greens’ strong results in these European elections mean that they have also consolidated themselves nationally.
For now, Austria is governed by a technocratic transitional government, led for the first time in the history of post-war Austria by a woman, former president of the Constitutional Court Brigitte Bierlein. Half of the ministers are also women. Parliamentary Elections are set to take place in September. It remains to be seen whether Kurz can eat up the far right, or whether the FPÖ can manage to cast itself as the victim of a conspiracy and initiate a comeback. The social democrats hope to mount a convincing challenge, but their new leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, first needs to unite the party around herself. The Greens, finally, have to see whether they can overcome their internal schisms and achieve a similarly strong result in national politics as in the European elections.
Photo Credit: Von Christian Michelides via Wikimedia commons, “Demo Rücktritt Jetzt! – Heinz-Christian Strache Ibiza-Affäre 18. Mai 2019“, CC BY-SA 4.0