• Between Two Crises? – The 2017 Austrian Elections from a European Perspective

  • Auteur Walter Baier | 01 Mar 18
  • A sigh of relief was breathed throughout Europe at Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential elections, although in the second round the Front National’s candidate got twice the vote percentage her father Jean-Marie had gotten 15 years before. Liberal commentators felt vindicated since they had already concluded from the Austrian presidential elections of December 2016 – in which Alexander Van der Bellen prevailed over the radical right candidate Norbert Hofer – and the defeat of Geert Wilders’s radical right PVV in the Dutch parliamentary elections of March 2017 that the radical right in Western Europe had already passed its peak. To a certain extent the 13% that Alternative für Deutschland received in September’s Bundestag elections, which justifiably alarmed German public opinion, could even be seen as a catch-up phenomenon of a normal albeit troublesome European state of affairs.

    The total picture that emerges is of radical right parties that, although they have acquired or consolidated an electoral potential that has reached into the centre of society, can be resisted by bourgeois liberal forces.

    This was also reflected in the state-of-the-union address that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered in September 2017 before the European Parliament. A year previously he had felt the need to appeal to the large European nations to resist the wind of populism,1 but this worry seemed to have disappeared in September, all the more so as modest economic growth allowed him to announce that there was fresh wind in Europe’s sails. We would not be wrong in interpreting his reform programme, the White Paper that the European Commission published in March 20172 along with the accompanying Reflection Paper, as a platform through which the leading ruling forces of the European Union are seeking not only to deal with criticism from the left but also to defend themselves from the radical nationalist right-wing march towards power.

    However, these economic growth rates ought not to obscure the reality of the EU’s social condition characterised as it continues to be by high rates of unemployment, especially among youth, by growing poverty and exclusion, and by increasing inequality between states and regions. We can see that even in a period of economic growth in the EU more of the same neoliberalism will not lead out of the social crisis. Furthermore, the key elements of a strategy – consisting of a banking union and a European monetary fund – presented in the European Commission’s Reflection Paper on the Deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union are aimed more at increasing the resilience of the Eurozone in the face of future crises that are apparently accepted as inevitable than at remedying the structural defects of the Economic and Currency Union itself.

    Juncker thus follows his optimism with a clear warning: ‘We now have a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever. Let us make the most of the momentum, catch the wind in our sails.’ 3

    In fact, the political auspices under which the debate over EU reform has begun are not particularly favourable. The defensive battle against the onslaught of the radical, nationalistic right claimed its victims. In the Netherlands, France, and Austria the social democratic parties suffered dramatic defeats. In the Netherlands the vote share of the social democratic PvdA sank from 24.8% to 5.7%; in the first round of the presidential election in Austria (April 2016) the candidates for the former parties of government, SPÖ and ÖVP, with 11.3% and 11.1% respectively, were far from making it to the second ballot; the candidate of France’s PS, Benoît Hamon, received 6.4% in the first round of the presidential election, and in the first round of the parliamentary elections the PS’s vote share dropped from 19.3% to 7.4%. In the Netherlands, the governing conservative-liberal party, the VVD, was only able to save itself by adopting the xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric defined by the radical right, a strategy that was imitated by Austria’s conservatives in fall 2017.

    It is not impossible that the new government constellations will for a while allow the old government policy to be continued though with a new rhetoric. Whether they are sustainable is another question, especially if the EU’s economies go through another downturn. The hurdles alone, which appeared in autumn on the way to Brexit, along with the Spanish government system’s morbidity, revealed by Catalonia’s aspirations to independence, show that the EU has entered rough seas. Furthermore, the parliamentary elections held in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic this fall make it clear that the rise of radical right parties, which have mobilised a number of votes unprecedented in Europe’s post-war history, has at best been curbed but not ended.

    In 2017, within Europe’s radical right an important clarification process took place. Now that as a result of Brexit the two competing parliamentary groups essentially made up of British parties – European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) – in the European Parliament will no longer exist in this form when the next European Parliament elections are held in 2019 the political initiative will go to the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, mainly consisting of the Front National, the FPÖ, the Lega Nord, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, and the Netherlands’ PVV, and to its corresponding Europe-wide party, Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (MENF). In identical documents they have succinctly set out their principles:

    The parties and the individual MEPs of the ENF Group base their political alliance on the sovereignty of states and their citizens, relying on the cooperation between nations, and therefore reject any policy designed to create a supra-state or supra-national model. The opposition to any transfer of national sovereignty to supranational bodies and/or European Institutions is one of the fundamental principle uniting Members of the ENF [...] [They] base their political alliance on the preservation of the identity of the citizens and nations of Europe, in accordance with the specific characteristics of each population. The right to control and regulate immigration is thus a fundamental principle shared by the Members of the ENF Group.4

    In the next period of the European Parliament it is not impossible that a nationalist group will be constituted under its leadership that will approach the size of the two largest groups, the European People’s Party (the conservative group) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (the social democratic group).

    Table 1: Radical right – 2017 parliamentary elections (previous election)

    country (party)

    vote share 2017 (previous election)

    votes 2017 (previous election)

    NL (Partij voor de Vrijheid - PVV)

    13.6% (10.8%)

    1,370,000 (950,000)

    F (Front National- FN)

    13.2% (13.6%)

    2,991,000 (3,528,000)

    D (Alternative für Deutschland - AfD)

    12.6% (n/a)

    5,878,000 (n/a)

    Ö (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs - FPÖ)

    26% (20.4%)

    1,316,000 (962,313)

    CZ (Svoboda a přímá demokraci- SPD)

    14.9% (n/a)

    538,574 (n/a)

    Total:

     

    12,094,000 (5,440,000)

     

    ‘In small Austria the great world holds its trial runs’5

    The constitution of this common government of the ÖVP and FPÖ represents a watershed in Austria’s post-war history. Nevertheless, we have to take into account that two-thirds of the ÖVP’s and FPÖ’s vote increase came from two right-wing populist parties that did not stand for election this time. The movement of votes between left and right therefore involves no more than 3.5%. The generally verified rightward shift consists less in a dramatic change of voter behaviour than in a change in the institutional relation of forces. The voters were put in the position of an audience gazing in amazement at a perfectly staged production.

    That an influential group in the ÖVP had for years been seeking a new coalition with the FPÖ was well known. However, the requisite majority in the parliament, which had long existed except from 1970 to 1983 (Kreisky’s long stretch in government without the need for coalition), was only used from 2000 to 2006. What enabled its supporters in the ÖVP to realise it this time was not a sudden dramatic shift in the population in favour of it but a political reorientation among the elites and their institutions; it is particularly ironic that it was the leadership of the SPÖ that broke the taboo by publicly weighing the possibility of forming a government coalition with the FPÖ themselves, thus freeing those in the ÖVP wanting a coalition with the FPÖ to advocate it openly.

    Table 2: Final results 2017 (change from 2013)

    Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs - SPÖ

    26.9%

    (+0.1)

    Österreichische Volkspartei - ÖVP

    31.5%

    (+ 7.5)

    Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs - FPÖ

    26%

    (+ 5.5)

    Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative - Grüne

    3.8%

    (- 8.6)

    NEOS –

    Das Neue Österreich und Liberales Forum - Neos

    6.3%

    (+0.3%)

    Liste Peter Pilz - PILZ

    4.4%

    (first electoral participation)

    Kommunistische Partei Österreichs - KPÖ Plus

    0.8%

    (-0.2)

    Bündnis Zukunft Österreich - BZÖ

    n/a

    (3.5%)

    Team Stronach - TS

    n/a

    (5.7%)

     

    In 2017, however, there was a political hurdle for the right, since just recently 54% of voters had clearly rejected the combination of an ÖVP- FPÖ president (in this case more accurately FPÖ-ÖVP).

    The impediment was removed through a putsch that catapulted to the leadership of the ÖVP Sebastian Kurz, the ‘acceptable face of right populism’,6 a 31-year-old ‘post-ideological’, ‘pragmatic’ politician capable of garnering sectors of the electorate in a way that Macron, or a few years ago Renzi, was able to capture.

    The dimensions of the rightward shift

    The elections have had a sweeping effect on the institutional level. The SPÖ lost the office of head of government that it had held for 41 years in the 47 years since Bruno Kreisky’s electoral victory; the Greens who were represented in Parliament for 31 years have lost their presence there, and the ÖVP and FPÖ with 53% of votes occupy 62% of parliamentary seats, which brings them almost to the two-thirds level needed to enact changes to the Constitution. This might be the prelude to a reconstruction of the political system of Austria’s Second Republic, which historian Gerhard Botz plausibly calls an ‘illiberal neoliberal turn’.7

    Austria’s democratic public is still struggling to come up with adequate concepts for this shock. Liberal and social democratic commentators, especially, tend towards oversimplification. However we have to be precise. The Kurz-Strache government is not a fascist regime but a government with a presence of neo-fascists, and the FPÖ is not a fascist party but a right populist one in which neo-fascists hold key positions and, as of now, occupy, among others, the leading posts of the ministries of the Interior and Defence, to which the police, the army, and the secret services are answerable. A uniquely Austrian political-cultural phenomenon is that the FPÖ Minister of the Interior is being provided with an undersecretary nominated by the ÖVP who aside from the fight against corruption will deal with the administration of memorial sites, namely the former concentration camp of Mauthausen.

    In political science, populism is called a ‘thin-centered ideology’. However, the FPÖ is a highly ideologised party. What is populist is at best its political style. In contrast to the year 2000, when under Jörg Haider it entered government with the ÖVP for the first time, it has moved further to the right. According to research published by the Dokumentatationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstands (Archive of the Austrian Resistance), 20 of the FPÖ’s 51 members of parliament belong to German-nationalist fraternities.8 In evaluating the new government it is significant that at the time of the first Schüssel government only eight MPs identified themselves as German-national through fraternity membership.

    Continuously through Nazism and de-Nazification, German nationalism today still represents a sector of Austria’s elites and, moreover, today it is the reflection of a growing influence of German capital in the country’s economy and culture. ‘Internationalisation among university staff means “Germanisation” in very many cases’, Universitätenkonferenz (Uniko) researchers recently noted. According to a current analysis of the Ministry of Science, 27.4% of university professors teaching in Austria come from Germany. At the University of Vienna they make up nearly 40%.9

    The FPÖ is frequently identified with the national camp deriving from the inter-war years. The concept is paradoxical. The nation to which the ‘national’ camp in Austria feels committed is not its own but the German nation. In the party programme established in 2011 Austrians with German as their mother tongue are addressed as members of a ‘German and cultural ethnic community’. Literally, in the FPÖ programme: ‘The language, history, and culture of Austria are German. The overwhelming majority of Austrians are part of the German ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community.’10 The German-national outlook links the FPÖ to the subculture of the German fraternities, traditional clubs, and new-right periodicals, which constitute the sounding board of extreme right and neo-Nazi agitation in the country and a recruiting ground for their intellectual élites.11 Their racism and their more or less patent anti-Europeanism are the vehicle of an ethnic nationalism that negates Austria as an independent nation.

    The commitment to European integration stated in the FPÖ’s government programme remains abstract; moreover, it is tied to a declaration of intent to correct ‘undesirable developments’, namely in the areas of immigration and over-regulation, which in the given circumstances can be read as a termination clause.12 In terms of European policy the government’s announcement that it would hold out the prospect of Austrian citizenship to the South Tyrol’s German-speaking ethnic group is explosive material,13 and it is fully in line with the German-national line of the FPÖ and the South-Tyrol right wing.

    A precarious equilibrium

    If the government’s ideological programme is disproportionately determined by the FPÖ, then the neoliberal orthodoxy of the programme’s chapter on economic and financial policy has the handwriting of the ÖVP on it, but it can without great difficulty be harmonised with the FPÖ, which has for years now been discretely supported by the country’s upper 10,000. In May 2016 the usually well-informed Die Presse was able to report on a newly awakened interest and growing support for the FPÖ among members of the exclusive Association of Austrian Industrialists.14

    Internet activists have documented that whole passages of the accord signed between the ÖVP and FPÖ are taken verbatim from the catalogue of demands for the next federal government published by the Association of Austrian Industrialists in June 2017,15 among the most important of which are:

    • cuts in corporate taxes;
    • deregulation of working hours;
    • relaxation of labour protections and protection from unjust firing;
    • decreased tax and contribution rates;
    • deregulation of the housing market.

    The editorial writer of the pro-corporate, conservative daily Die Presse is thus correct when he writes that the government programme corresponds to ‘what can be expected of a right-of-centre government: less state in entrepreneurial competition, more state in public security. The turquoise – blue government is not out of step here with the mainstream of Europe’s conservatively led governments.’16 This means a clear division of labour in the government: ‘more state’ is managed by the FPÖ, ‘less state’ by the ÖVP.

    How long this division of labour reflecting the coalition partners’ ideological tendencies can work will depend on the persistence of favourable economic circumstances. The FPÖ will remain in standby position in the law-and-order ministries it captured, convinced that its day will still come.

    First, however, the FPÖ is facing bigger problems than its coalition partner is. In terms of social structure, its electorate is like that of other comparable right-wing parties in Europe: it wins majorities (according to employment status) among workers and lower-level employees, those with obligatory primary and vocational education, and people in former industrial regions outside urban agglomerations. This part of the population, which has experienced the developments of recent years as ‘overwhelmingly negative’ and conditions in the country as ‘rather unjust’,17 can only look forward to a further worsening of their quality of life from the deregulation and cuts announced in the government programme.

    The government is hoping that economic growth will allow it to administer its planned interventions into the social security systems in gradual doses so that its effects will not immediately be felt and will not simultaneously hit all those affected.

    However, from an ideological point of view it can draw on changes in the fundamental attitudes of the population. 60% of FPÖ sympathisers felt that ‘most of the unemployed are not really looking for a job’, a view shared by 47% of people with primary-education degrees and apprenticeship certificates, although due to their risk of unemployment they ought to be more interested in social-state security than other parts of society.18

    In terms of the right-wing parties, over the years a consistent ideological confrontation has been carried out in this regard. Only recently, at a press conference, the ÖVP mayor of Graz, Austria’s second largest city, and his FPÖ vice-mayor have attacked the left opposition because it ‘is exclusively concerned with minorities. The Greens, the SP, and KP will only speak of the socially weak and of refugees. None of these three parties speaks of the high performers!’19 Up to know there have been no signs that the social democratic leadership will deal with the cultural and ideological dimension of the confrontation with the right or is even aware of it.

    Where does the left stand?

    Voter migration between the SPÖ and FPÖ occurred only in one direction, as voter transition analyses show. That the SPÖ could nevertheless retain its vote share is explained by the 12% increase (156,000) coming from Green voters compensating for the 11% loss (155,000) to the FPÖ.20 To the extent that the SPÖ has shown little capacity to ward off the right, it has all the more effectively damaged the left.

    The radical left, which in the elections was represented by an alliance consisting of the KPÖ (Austrian Communist Party) and the Young Greens, the Greens’ former youth organisation, had no success in a climate that among the left was mainly influenced by worry over the looming black- blue coalition. Still, the deficit in Austria’s party system to which it spoke, specifically the lack of an alternative to the left of social democracy and the Greens, objectively exists.

    Table 3: Radical left – 2017 parliamentary elections (previous election)

    country (party)

    electoral result 2017 (previous election)

    votes 2017 (previous election)

    NL (Socialistische Partij - SP)

    9.09% (9.65%)

    956,000 (910,000)

    F (La France in- soumise - FI)

    11.24% (n/a)

    2.455,000 (n/a)

    F (Parti communiste français - PC)

    2.81% (n/a)

    613,000 (n/a)

    F (Front de gauche - FG)

    n/a (7.1%)

    n/a (1,780,000)

    F (Divers gauche - Div)

    0.8% (1.0% )

    171,000 (252,000)

    D (Die LINKE)

    9.24% (8.59%)

    4,297,000 (3,755,000)

    D (MLDP, DKP, etc.)

    0.4% (0.07%)

    201,087 (29,000)

    Ö (Kommunistische Partei Österreichs und Bündnispartner – KPÖ Plus)

    0.8% (1%)

    39,700 (48,175)

    CZ (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy - KSČM)

    7.76% (14.91%)

    393,100 (741,044)

    Total

     

    9,126,000 (7,515,000)

     

    It seems that in the European context this question needs to be framed differently. And then again not. The ‘radical left’, that is, the parties to the left of the social democrats and Greens, represent a sizable electoral factor whose numbers even grew in 2017 (+1.5 million or +20%).

    But they are far from creating a political alternative, not only because socialists and social democrats still reject cooperation with the radical left (except in the special case of Portugal) but also because the heavy losses social democratic parties have suffered make left-oriented majorities impossible in any case.

    It is tragic that at the same time radical right groups have doubled their voter share from 5,446,000 to 12,094,000. Are we therefore seeing a repeat of the inter-war scenario of an asymmetric polarisation clearly tilted towards the right?

    If this is true, and in the event of a new drastic economic downturn in Europe, it does not bode well.

    Notes

    1. State of the Union Address 2016: Towards a better Europe - a Europe that protects, empowers and defends, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/state-union-2016_en.
    2. European Commission (March 2017), White Paper on the Future of Europe; European Commission (April 2017), Reflection Paper on the Social Dimension of Europe; European Commission (May 2017), Reflection Paper on the Deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union; European Commission (November 2017), European Pillar of Social Rights.
    3. Jean Claude Juncker, The state of the Union 2017, p. 7.
    4. ENF, Article 1 Charter; Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom, Political Platform.
    5. Friedrich Hebbel, Prolog zum 26. Februar 1862 (delivered in Vienna in the Opera Theatre).
    6. Hans Rauscher, ‘Haben wir uns in Christian Kern getäuscht?’, Der Standard, 16 August 2017.
    7. Gerhard Botz, ‘Es gibt eine neoliberale-illiberale Wende’, Der Standard, 20 Oktober 2017.
    8. Kurier.at (25 October 2017), ‘So national wird der neue Nationalrat’.
    9. Jeder vierte Professor ist Deutscher’, Die Presse, 14 February 2017.
    10. Parteiprogramm der Freiheitlichen Partei (FPÖ), enacted at the federal party congress on 18 June 2011 in Graz.
    11. Anton Pelinka, ‘Die FPÖ im internationalen Vergleich’, conflict & communication online, 1/1 2002.
    12. Zusammen. Für unser Österreich, Regierungsprogramm 2017–2022, p. 4.
    13. Zusammen. Für unser Österreich, p. 33.
    14. Hanna Kordik, ‘Hört die Signale (der FPÖ)’, Die Presse, 2 May 2016.
    15. Die 95 PROzent, ‘Schwarz-Blau: Aufgedeckt: Regierungsprogramm wortwörtlich (!) von Superreichen abgeschrieben!’.
    16. Oliver Pink, ‘Dieser Weg wird kein linker sein’ (editorial), Die Presse, 20 December 2017.
    17. SORA, Wahlanalyse Nationalratswahl 2017.
    18. The European Social Survey.
    19. VP & FP in Graz: Die Mehrheit darf nicht die Melkkuh sein’, Kronenzeitung, 30 December 2017.
    20. SORA, Nationalratswahl 2017: Wählerstromanalyse.