Germany’s two major parties are still feeling their way towards a grand coalition as the most likely outcome of last Sunday’s election. But in neighboring Austria, a grand coalition has been in place for nearly seven years, and today the voters again get to pass judgement on its future.

Last time they did so, the verdict was pretty damning. The coalition, formed at the beginning of 2007, had temporarily broken up, forcing a snap election in September 2008. Voters deserted it in droves. Its component parties, which once had commanded more than 90% of the vote between them, slumped to their worst results ever: 29.3% for the Social Democrats (centre-left) and 26.0% for the People’s Party (centre-right).

This is the problem with grand coalitions – to some extent, with any coalition. Two parties that had once had competing and independent support bases start to be seen as all of one piece. So for anyone feeling dissatisfaction with one of them, it’s not enough to switch to the other, since that’s no longer all that different. Instead they have to go elsewhere.

That “elsewhere” often turns out to be somewhere on the extremes. In Austria’s case, the big beneficiaries in 2008 were the two parties of the far right: the Freedom Party, an established minor party that had been taken rightwards by the notorious Joerg Haider, and the Alliance for the Future of Austria, led at the time by Haider after his party had split.

That at least provided a rationale for grand coalition – a need to keep out the extremists – which is much harder to discern in Germany. But as a strategic move it seems to have been counter-productive. If keeping the Freedom Party down was the objective, then the People’s Party’s move to take it into coalition in 2000, although much condemned at the time, was a great deal more effective.

Extremists often lose support if brought within the tent, while keeping them outside gives them credibility. But some extremists are just too dangerous to have in government for any reason; that was the lesson taught to the conservatives who gave Adolf Hitler office in 1933. Unfortunately, there’s no a priori way of determining which ones are which.

This time around, the grand coalition has been more stable, serving a full five-year term (increased from four years during the previous parliament). Nonetheless, it looks like losing even more ground. Indeed, it could well dip below a combined 50% of the vote; recent polling shows the Social Democrats down to 27.0% and the People’s Party to 23.2%. But with several percent of the vote wasted on parties that will not reach the 4% threshold for representation, that would still give it a workable if narrow majority.

The good news is that not all of the extra is going to the extremists. The Freedom Party is hovering around 20%, but the Alliance for the Future of Austria, which moved to the centre after Haider’s death, looks unlikely to make the 4% cut. Instead the extra votes have been going to the Greens (up around 4% from their 10.4% in 2008) and to a new liberal eurosceptic party, Team Stronach, which is polling around 7.5%.

The upshot is that the grand coalition is almost certain to survive, not because voters like it but because there is no realistic alternative. Neither of the two big parties could be excluded without the other having to rely on the Freedom Party, which they are not willing to do.

Everyone likes the idea of moderates banding together to keep out the extremists. But in practice it seems to be a self-limiting strategy. One day, Austria will have to try something different, but today doesn’t look like being that day.


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