Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

Analysis

Sunday's election in Austria: What to expect?

  • Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (centre), with the disgraced Hans-Christian Strache on the left (Photo: Dragan Tatic/BKA)

"Provide clarity. Vote for Kurz. Austria needs its chancellor." So proclaimed campaign posters portraying Sebastian Kurz in a statesmanlike posture, just days before Austria heads to the polls.

A snap election was called after the government of Kurz, Europe's youngest leader who had headed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), was removed from power by an unprecedented no-confidence vote in the Austrian parliament in May.

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  • Campaign posters in Vienna for Kurz - saying 'Make it clear, choose Kurz' (Photo: Stephanie Liechtenstein)

Parliament lost confidence in the government after a secretly-filmed video emerged, that showed the then FPO party chief Heinz-Christian Strache appearing to offer government contracts to a purported Russian investor on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

After the political turmoil caused by the so-called Ibiza affair, an interim expert government was put in place that ha governed Austria in a sober way during the past four months.

While the interim government was focused on administering the republic, the Austrian parliament went into full swing - some would say a bit overboard, particularly during the past four weeks of an intensifying election campaign.

It passed a series of measures that some interpreted as election campaign noise, including a motion that obliges the next Austrian government to veto ratification of the EU-Mercosur treaty in the EU Council.

But what can be expected from the snap election on Sunday (29 September)?

Various opinion polls suggest that Sebastian Kurz's centre-right People's Party (OVP) will comfortably win the election again, with 34 percent of the vote.

For his voters, the Ibiza affair apparently had no negative effects on the ex-chancellor's credibility.

This is in part owed to Kurz's strategy that has been focused, from the beginning, on portraying himself as a victim of the saga. Announcing the end of the 18-month government, Kurz said "enough is enough".

Furthermore, while Kurz won the election on a hardline migration platform in 2017, that topic was less dominant this time.

Instead, Kurz introduced the topic of "identity", defending what he called a society based on the "Judaeo-Christian identity" and on Austrian customs and traditions, which is particularly appealing to voters in more rural areas.

Hence, it is clear that Kurz is set to return to power.

With who?

But the main question is whom he will govern with, since he needs a coalition partner in order to secure a majority in the Austrian parliament.

From today's perspective, Kurz will have three (or maybe four) options.

One would be to re-enter into a coalition with the Freedom Party. Agreeing on another coalition with the far-right could be easy since the two parties share many policy goals, from taxation to migration.

Despite the startling corruption scandal, the FPO is projected to win around 20 percent of the vote, proving that they have a core support base of voters who stick to them no matter what.

Also, the FPO secured a smooth transition of power after Heinz-Christian Strache stepped down as party leader.

Norbert Hofer took over and was elected with a clear majority of 98.25 percent. He is more soft-spoken than Strache and is appealing to more mainstream conservative voters.

In addition, the party provided Herbert Kickl - the former hardline interior minister - with space during the election campaign.

He is considered the mastermind of the party and he uses anti-immigration rhetoric that resonates well with the more right-wing voters.

"Without us, Kurz will tilt to the left. Stop illegals and protect our borders," one Freedom Party campaign poster says, with a sombre-looking Kickl.

It is also Kickl who could become a sticking point in the coalition talks, should the option with the FPO be pursued.

President Alexander Van der Bellen has excluded swearing in a government in which Kickl assumes the post of a minister.

Kurz supports this position and does not want the controversial ex-interior minister to be part of a new government. The question is whether the FPO will give in to this demand, with the prospect of a possible return to power.

A second option would be allying with the Social Democrats (SPO), which polls suggest could win around 22 percent of the vote.

But this option is considered unrealistic as Kurz and Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the head of the SPO, do not get along personally. This was underlined during various TV campaign debates where they could be seen clashing.

It is not excluded that the SPO will change its leadership after the election, which would, in theory, make a coalition between OVP and SPO more realistic.

However, the so-called 'Grand Coalition', which governed Austria during most of the decades since the end of the Second World War, is perceived among the general public as having contributed to gridlock.

It is therefore seen as an unattractive way forward.

Option 3?

A third alternative for the OVP would be forming a government together with the Greens and the liberal NEOS.

This would be a novelty in Austria.

The Greens are expected to make a comeback after shock losses in 2017. They could now win around 12 percent of the vote, with climate change a top voter concern. Together with the liberal NEOS polling at around eight percent, a parliamentary majority could be secured.

But such a coalition of these three parties, even if seen as progressive and modern, is still a considerable risk.

Because with three different parties - one on the left and two right-of-centre - it could become hard to strike deals and find common ground.

If all three options fail, there is, in theory, a fourth option. Sebastian Kurz could form a minority government and try to pass laws with alternating majorities in Parliament.

But this form of government is unstable and unlikely to last a whole legislative period of five years.

Coalition talks are thus expected to be difficult and could take several months.

Yet, a new government is needed soon in order to boost Austria's influence in Europe, particularly because that influence is missing now with an interim government in place that has no powers to launch initiatives.

A new government will have to contribute fresh ideas to the debate on treaty reform, enlargement, Brexit, migration, climate change, and also free trade, after the Austrian parliament's rejection of the EU-Mercosur deal.

A return to government of the far-right FPO could hamper some of those attempts, and might also tarnish Austria's image in Europe, particularly given the series of FPO anti-Semitic and racist scandals.

So, while it seems very likely that Austria will get back "its chancellor", the tough questions will have to be answered in the months after the election, when a new government has to be formed.

Strache scandal: how big a hit will Austrian far-right take?

This is a political crisis unprecedented in Austria since the war: the resignation of the vice-chancellor, firing of the interior minister, the mass resignation of FPO ministers, a snap election, and a no-confidence vote in the Austrian parliament on Monday.

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