Austria: 28-30% of the public susceptible to rightwing populist message

Read few comments.


1. How would you describe the relations between SPÖ and ÖVP after the election when both parties lost few seats? Chancellor Faymann said that he wants the grand coalition, but it looks like Spindelegger is willing at least to talk also to others.

2. FPÖ is quite happy with its result. It seems that that far-right/populist politics is quite popular among Austrian people and Strache also called for unity among Europe’s far-right. Would you say it might somehow set a dangerous trend or it is more or less just rhetoric?


Reinhard Heinisch, Professor of Austrian Politics in European Perspective, Department of Political Science, Chair, University of Salzburg

1. The relations are not any better or worse between the two parties than before as they have the familiar ideological differences but that is not the issue. The issues is that the VP is in great danger to slip to third place or worse the next time if nothing changes because they are structurally in a bad place. The chancellor’s party gets the glory for the successes and the VP is invisible. If the VP becomes more assertive and seeks to develop an independent profile in govt., goes on the offensive, the public perceives the entire coalition as cantankerous, unwilling to reform anything, and paralyzed – so it is dammed it you do and dammed if you don’t. This is the VP structural problem in the current configuration and this has been the case since 1986 with the exception of the years 2000-2006 when there was a different govt.

In short, the VP will have to insist on some break with the past and wants some change that is noticeable – either drive up the price for a new coalition and have some VP goals enacted into law, or have perhaps free floating majorities in parliament where on certain issues each coalition party can independently try to pass an agenda item with a party other than the partner in government, or, as some speculate, have even a different configuration of government (e.g. a 3rd coalition partner). There is an outside chance that the VP may seek an alternative coalition with the FP and Stronach. However, the difference to 2000 is that Spindelegger is no Schüssel, less tactically savvy and that the man in his background and the most powerful figure in the VP – the governor of Lower Austria Erwin Pröll –still favors a grand coalition. You have to imagine that the VP is a weird party in that it has a very weak center and is completely dependent on its powerful regional chapters and its component organizations for personnell and funding (the VP is really a league of various interest groups without direct party membership and just a skeleton core apparatus).

The fundamental problem of the major parties are as follows: Both have been pursuing core voter strategies and never reached beyond their core clientele. The SP wins elections essentially by dominating among retired people and Austrians over 50. The VP scores among clientele groups such as famers, civil servants, church goers and teachers but has lost centrist voters, urban voters, professionals. In short, both parties have lost the vote of the under 40-year old (the less educated/working class young vote for the FP, the more educated and urban young vote Greens and Neos) and both major parties are only elected by dwindling segments in the population. So far the core voter strategy has always delivered just enough votes to remain in relatively 1st and 2nd place but as these groups keep declining so did the major parties’ vote share. Now we are approaching the threshold when such a strategy no longer delivers enough votes to have a combined majority of over 50%.

2. Since the early 1990s, there have been around 28-30% of the public susceptible to rightwing populist messages – these are typically younger male voters with working class background and lower levels of education. This group includes also rural voters, those most fervently opposed to the EU and other protest voters completely alienated from the system. As a whole, they have divided themselves between the FP, BZÖ, Stronach etc. Depending who is up and who is down, the voters have moved between these parties. To the extent that Frank Stronach kept losing in the end, These voters migrated (back) to the FP (the BZÖ appeared too moderate). It should be noted that we had not much mobilization against foreigners and also by the standards of the SNS in your country, the FP has mellowed considerably of late (in part because it badly wants into government). It was interesting to note that the FP is now the largest working class party and received more working class votes than the SP – workers are the most important voting segment for the FP. The FP became the dominant party in the province of Styria but largely due to localized reasons.

It is hard to assess the “danger” of the FP – I am an American who has lived in Austria for 4 years now and the FP is in same sense not any more radical than many Republicans in the US. It seems quite normal that if you have an establishment that favors certain politics esp. with respect to the EU, that the portion of the electorate hostile to the EU would beat a path to the FP. Strache is no Haider in the sense that he is less smart and less imaginative – the brain behind him is clearly H Kickel the Gen Sec. So in that sense we expect Strache to have his limits in any overarching strategy when establishing a pan-European far right (but one never knows of course). In fact, there were people in the party wanting to push him out (which is now obviously no longer the case) because he was perceived as a loser just a few months ago. But of course, one should not underestimate the potential for trouble that a strong FP is capable of stirring up. The new govt. has clearly lost its two thirds majority needed for certain EU-related decisions and needs the cooperation of all other opposition parties to counter maneuvers by Strache and Stronach to block such legislation.

Strache has promoted the influence of far-right and pan-German nationalist fraternities (from where he originally comes) and returned the FP to an earlier version of itself. By contrast Haider had kicked most of them out and repositioned the FP more like an Austrian version of the ĽS–HZDS, a sort of conservative nationalism (Austria first).

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