Austrian Elections: Think twice before calling it a ‘shift to the right’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Austrian national elections on 29 September do not show a shift towards right-wing nationalism merely because the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) became the third strongest party, writes Herbert Vytiska.

Herbert Vytiska was an advisor to  the former Austrian foreign minister Alois Mock.

At the last minute – thanks to 535,000 postal votes not counted until late Monday night – election results on Sunday for the Austrian National Council confirmed a continuation for the two-thirds majority consisting of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and The Greens – the three declared pro-European parties. The two-thirds majority is required, for example, to pass legislation relinquishing selected national competences to Brussels. Neither of the two new parties, the new liberal party Neos (New Austria) nor ‘Team Stronach’ of Austro-Canadian car-parts magnate, played the role of tipping the scales to a right-wing majority, as had been anticipated. It seems Austria will remain a steady partner to the EU, at least for the next few years. For the time being, although considerable time remains until the formation of the new government, discussions have already begun on how to create the best possible foundation for coalition negotiations.

Austrian media sources indicate a continuation of an SPÖVP-government. Still, it is impossible to say whether the government will turn out as expected when its leader has not yet been chosen. Recent developments show SPÖ party leader Werner Faymann has already determined a meeting with the ÖVP and has likewise rejected the prospect of talks with the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Meanwhile, his counterpart in the ÖVP, Michael Spindelegger, has planned to speak with all the parties; a position which he has been pressured into by various party leaders from the nine Austrian Länder.

Reality reveals a paradox in the organization of the new Austrian government; although President Heinz Fischer may entrust Faymann with the task of forming the new government, control is actually in the hands of Spindelegger, who will decide on what the government looks like in the end. At the same time he is handicapped by the implications of a two-party coalition (with the SPÖ) or various three-party options (though any of these are only possible with an inclusion of the FPÖ). The biggest complication concerning negotiations with the FPÖ, remain its negative platform regarding the EU and the Euro as well as the officials within its ranks who have an undesired inclination to the far-right. Surprisingly, however, the Freedom Party remains one of the constitutionally loyal parties, belonging to what is referred to as the “Verfassungsbogen”

[“constitutional arc”] in Austrian politics.

On 29 September the outcome of Austrian national council elections did not show a “shift right” in the direction of right-wing nationalism just because the FPÖ became the third-strongest party in the government. Strache even ended up far below the 26.9% his political mentor and former FPÖ party leader, Jörg Haider, achieved 14 years earlier. 

European media sources are, quite frankly, making a manipulative assumption when their headlines paint the picture of a “horrible outcome” in the direction of right-wing extremism. All one must do to find the truth in the matter, is take a closer look at exit poll data and calculate voter migration among parties.

The fact is that, up until the elections, two parties belonged to the right-wing in the Austrian Parliament: the FPÖ and the more moderate Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO); a party which split-off from the FPÖ via its former party leader, Jörg Haider. Together, the two held 27.6%. Following the elections last Sunday, the BZÖ lost 7.1% of the votes, forcing the party to leave the Parliament. In contrast, the 3.1% gain enjoyed by the FPÖ can almost completely be traced to voters who switched back to their former Freedom Party (FPÖ) allegiance. As of now, the Austrian Parliament shows a mere 20.6% for parties from centre- to far-right. Do the math, and the answer shows this to be less than it was five years ago.

What has actually occurred in Austria, is the centre-left camp has turned out to be much weaker than the centre-right camp. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that the left has shown weaker results than the right after it lost the absolute majority under Bruno Kreisky 30 years ago. Ever since, the left has only suffered further losses. For the time being, the SPÖ and Greens barely have a combined 39.2% and are therefore unable to create a two-party coalition.

Quite the opposite, the centre-right has gained strength – namely through the formation of two new parties, Team Stronach which was created one year ago, and Neos a party created during summer of this year. Team Stronach primarily speaks to frustrated voter groups. With regard to its platform, the party focuses on citizen’s values and is politically near the middle. The Neos party is actually a split-off from the ÖVP, garnished with a liberal touch. Definitely far from the left, the party is instead known for being curious, innovative and therefore attractive for citizens who favour an uprising in the future.

The fact that many workers, who traditionally voted social democrat, instead sought out the FPÖ to solve their problems, has much to do with the fact that the Freedom Party, increasingly, seems to better address their current concerns. Among others, these include the fear of being threatened by a rising number of immigrants in the workplace and local neighbourhoods. Rather than a shift right on the political spectrum, this trend simply shows social democrats losing ground on a number of issues. A decrease in votes for the SPÖ demonstrates that the old guard, the likes of Marx, Bauer and Engels, shall hereafter be restricted to the portrait gallery of historical leaders, whose lessons are no longer sought after.

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