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Political issues

Oct 13, 2017

Austria goes to the polls on Sunday in a general election that is expected to return the far right to participation in government, albeit as a junior partner.

For more than a decade, Austria has been governed by a grand coalition of its two traditional major parties, the Social Democrats (centre-left) and the People’s Party (centre-right). As the last election, four years ago, made clear, that coalition was not doing either of them any good: they were both losing support, to the point that in 2013 they commanded only a bare majority of the vote (50.8%) between them.

The People’s Party, the junior partner, decided to walk first. Last May it elected a new leader, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz – young, charismatic and right wing. He promptly demanded, and got, an early election, and his party’s popularity soared in the polls. There is no doubt that it will be returned this time as the largest party.

Voting is proportional (D’Hondt system) across the whole country, with a 4% threshold for representation. Unless the opinion polls are very badly wrong, we can be confident about the general shape of the result. Three parties – the two coalition partners and the far-right Freedom Party – will have 80% or more of the vote between them, and any two of them together will have a majority of seats.

In one sense, that makes the precise balance of support between them irrelevant. A governing coalition will require two of the three big parties, and given the direction of Kurz’s rhetoric and his poisonous relationship with the Social Democrats it is considered that centre-right plus far right is the overwhelmingly likely combination.

At another level, however, votes matter a great deal. For much of the last term of parliament, the far right has led in the polls, boosted especially by the Middle East refugee crisis. At the end of last year its support started to wane, due no doubt to the “Trump effect” that was harming far-right parties around the world. In December the Freedom Party’s candidate was narrowly defeated in the second round of Austria’s presidential election.

Then the advent of Kurz, who stole much of its thunder on immigration, led to a more precipitous drop, and left it fighting with the Social Democrats for second place.

So if the Freedom Party comes third, perhaps only a couple of percentage points ahead of the 20.5% that it won in 2013, it would be a moral setback for the far right across the continent. On the other hand, if it scores in the high 20s, comfortably clear of the Social Democrats and ahead of its previous high-water mark of 26.9% from 1999, it will be another body blow to the fortunes of the centre-left, coming on top of record defeats in France and Germany.

At present, the second of these outcomes seems more likely. The centre-left has been damaged in recent weeks by an extraordinary scandal in which it transpired that an anti-Semitic Facebook campaign against Kurz had been masterminded by a consultant (who was himself Jewish) hired by the Social Democrats. The party’s general secretary resigned as a result, although the centre-right was tarnished as well, thus bolstering the far right’s narrative that both the old parties are corrupt and out of touch.

There are also three minor parties set for representation: the Greens, the liberal NEOS, and Peter Pilz’s List, a breakaway faction from the Greens. None are polling much above the 4% mark, and it’s possible that one of them might miss out, thus boosting slightly the seat totals of the majors. But it’s hard to see how any of them could make a decisive contribution to the shape of the next government.

(Another minor party, the Eurosceptic but otherwise centrist Team Stronach, has disappeared with the retirement from politics of its eponymous populist leader.)

Among far right parties, the Freedom Party is something of an odd beast. Its origins are more explicitly neo-Nazi than those of most of its counterparts, but it has always had something of a liberal streak to it as well: it was once a member of Liberal International, and in the 1980s it spent a term in government as junior partner to the Social Democrats. Even now, the Social Democrats are not ruling it out as a coalition partner (such a coalition governs in the small state of Burgenland), although most observers see that as an improbable outcome.

Joerg Haider took the Freedom Party further to the right in the 1990s, resulting in the controversial 2000 coalition with the People’s Party, which for a time led to the European Union imposing sanctions on Austria. But the sky did not fall in; there were no dramatic shifts in policy, and participation in government led to a split and a major loss of support for the far right.

It’s by no means impossible that the same will happen this time. But the European far right is in a rather different place from where it was then; it is much more a co-ordinated international movement, with powerful if rival supporters in Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. A strong far-right presence in the next Austrian government will send powerful shock waves around European capitals.

The centre-right’s Kurz has been playing a dangerous game. On the one hand, by endorsing some of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance of the far right he has added to its credibility and damaged Austria’s reputation. On the other hand, he has clearly punctured the Freedom Party’s ambitions to be the country’s dominant party – an impressive achievement when compared to mid-2016, when the far right led its rivals by ten points.

Assuming that none of the three parties is indispensable after Sunday, the jockeying between them will probably keep Austria anchored somewhere in the mainstream. But the nature of that mainstream has clearly shifted rightwards. Tune in on Monday morning to find out just how big the shift has been.

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