Why Austria Voted the Way It Did
Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AICGS, where he focuses on German foreign and security policies and the new German role in Europe and beyond. Until June 1, he was the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, a Washington, DC, based forum for research and dialogue between scholars, policy experts, and authors from both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to joining the German Marshall Fund in 2007, Dr. Szabo was Interim Dean and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and taught European Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He served as Professor of National Security Affairs at the National War College, National Defense University (1982-1990). He received his PhD in Political Science from Georgetown University and has been a fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the American Academy in Berlin, as well as serving as Research Director at AICGS. In addition to SAIS, he has taught at the Hertie School of Governance, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Virginia. He has published widely on European and German politics and foreign policies, including. The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans, The Diplomacy of German Unification, Parting Ways: The Crisis in the German-American Relationship, and Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-Economics.
The election Sunday was a relatively simple one. Voters chose Sebastian Kurz and his People’s Party (ÖVP) and the more right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) because they are worried about immigration and identity but preferred it with a smiling, unthreatening face. According to electoral analysis in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, voters’ overriding concern was migration and refugee policy (51%), with pensions and old age care (25%) and the condition of the employment market (16%) far behind. These results are parallel to those in the German election where 44% listed refugees and foreigners as the top problem followed by pensions (24%) and social inequality (16%).
Given that the ÖVP increased its vote by 7.6 percent, with the upward trend directly linked to the nomination of Sebastian Kurz as chancellor candidate, it is clear this was an election driven by one issue and by the personalization of politics. The poll results also indicate the desire for a strong leader who can deal with disorder. This swing to the right has occurred in both Austria and Germany despite their favorable economic conditions. In Germany, 62 percent thought economic conditions were good, up from 46 percent in 2013.
In terms of voter flows, the ÖVP picked up 168,000 votes from people who had supported the Freedom Party in the 2013 election and 121,000 who did not vote in the last election. In Germany as well, the increased vote for the far-right AfD and the liberal FDP came from people who did not vote in the previous election. The AfD picked up 21 percent of those who had voted CDU in 2013, 10 percent of SPD voters, and 6 percent of Linke voters. The biggest group were the non-voters who comprised 35 percent of the AfD vote. In this regard, the ÖVP’s move to the right succeeded in restoring its fading electoral fortunes and avoiding the fate of the CDU.
As the analysis in the FAZ concluded, “That Austria moved right is not new. But this result makes it official.” At the same time, the voters’ view of left and right has also moved to the right so that the ÖVP is listed as centrist by voters when asked to put the parties on a left-right scale. Only the SPÖ is seen as left and, in a pattern seen in the Brexit vote and elections in the U.S., France, and Germany, the parties of the left have lost the working-class vote. In the German election only 23 percent of workers voted SPD and 10 percent Linke, while 18 percent voted AfD. The left has become identified with immigration and a multicultural identity while workers do not see it as concerned any longer with workers’ rights. This is an argument made by Mark Lilla in “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics,” and seems to be substantiated in this election as well as in the recent German vote. In Austria, those voters who find Austria unjust voted FPÖ not SPÖ, including 59 percent of workers. In Germany, those who thought social inequality was a major issue tended to vote SPD not AfD, which clearly was a one-issue party on the refugee/immigration issue. All of this has been compounded by the split within the Green Party, which only a year ago elected one of its own as president, but now did not even reach the 4 percent hurdle to enter the Nationalrat, the lower house of parliament.
The implications of this election for the next Merkel government are not entirely clear. Assuming an ÖVP-FPÖ government, the euro skeptical group within the EU will now have another voice, and Viktor Orban a new ally in his struggle with the EU. The upcoming election in the Czech Republic will likely add another ally to this camp. Austria, as Peter Rashish points out, is not an anti-EU country and Kurz is not anti-European. Austria’s relationship with Germany remains central. In this regard, the CSU in Bavaria has an ally in Vienna in its move to undercut the AfD and to pull the CDU to the right on the immigration and refugee issue. The EU in now more likely to make border and internal security a top priority. The last time there was an alliance between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party (2000-2006), the EU reacted with sanctions and there were major demonstrations in Vienna against the new coalition. Now a strong minority in the EU makes this a non-issue and there are no major protests in Vienna, all indications of the “normalization” of the right. The alternative of another so-called Grand Coalition is also fraught with dangers.
Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AICGS.