A New Turn for Austria after the Elections?

28 November 2017 /

Legislative elections were held in Austria on the 15th October, 2017. The results confirmed what seems to be a current trend in the European Union: the rise of populism, as far-right received significant support.

A Rightward Shift

First of all, the functioning of the Austrian political system implies that the President – Alexander Van der Bellen, from the Greens’ party (Die Grünen), since January 2017 – is elected by universal suffrage for six years. However, his role is somewhat minor and comparable to the function in a semi-presidential system. Hence, a significant part of the executive is left to the Austrian Federal Government, whose head is the Chancellor – since May 2017, Christian Kern from the Social Democratic Party of Austria (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs – SPÖ). The legislative elections are held every five years to elect the 183 members of the Nationalrat – the National Council – which is one of the two chambers of the Austrian Parliament. Following the elections, the leader of the most represented party – with the possibility to form a coalition – becomes the new Chancellor.

The October elections were quite unusual, even if most people were expecting this trend. It marks the end of a long-lasting coalition, and even domination, from the two main parties SPÖ and the Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei – ÖVP).

Five parties now make up the Austrian political scene, as there are represented in the Parliament: ÖVP, SPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – FPÖ), the New Austria and Liberal Forum (Das Neue Österreich und Liberales Forum – NEOS) and the Peter Pilz List (Liste Peter Pilz – PILZ).

ÖVP is now the party with the highest number of seats (62 under 183), followed by SPÖ (52 seats). But what has been unusual is the score of FPÖ (51 seats), as well as the eviction of the Greens (Die Grünen) that failed to cross the 4% threshold to be represented in the Parliament (Huggler and Csekö, 2017).

As Sebastian Kurz is the leader of ÖVP, he will now become Chancellor. However, his figure has been quite controversial amongst the EU member states. Not only is he the youngest leader in the European Union, but his positions are sometimes going against Brussels’ policies, especially on issues related to migration and security (Sahloul, 2017).

An Old Threat Comeback

The elections are also marked by the comeback of FPÖ. Indeed, it made a quick ascent in the number of votes during the 1999 elections and entered a coalition government in 2000. The success of FPÖ was partly due to its former leader Jörg Haider, who presented his party as a renewal of the Austrian political scene that was dominated by the Proporz of SPÖ and ÖVP. However, threatened by the score of FPÖ and its link with Nazism, the European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions over Austria, as to deter and prevent any wrongdoing by far-right extremists. The EU sanctions did not last long, and the coalition ÖVP-FPÖ lost on strength. Moreover, FPÖ itself declined in popularity following controversies (Prévost, 2004).

On the 20th October 2017, the Austrian President invited the new Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to form a government. Negotiations to form a coalition then started and the government should be appointed by the end of December. The conservative leader is said to have invited the far-right party for talks on forming a coalition (Oltermann, 2017). If FPÖ is confirmed to be in the next government, it will signify its return to power after a decade in opposition, and would possibly give again the EU a hard-time.

Toward Stormy Relations with the EU?

This leads us to question the place of Austria within the European Union. Indeed, if we think in terms of a still existing division between Eastern and Western Europe, we would generally classify Austria as belonging to Western Europe due to its history but also to the link it has with Western countries, notably with Germany. However, the recent trend towards more nationalistic politics could possibly let us think that Austria is getting closer to positions that are currently witnessed in Eastern Europe.

Therefore the link between the Visegrád Group and Austria is important to study. The Visegrád Group – or V4 – encompasses four countries of Central and Eastern Europe, that is to say Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The main goal of the V4 was to ease the accession to the European Union, and since this aim was achieved in 2004, the countries are trying to find common positions and collaborate on diverse subjects. The past few years have evidenced the rise of populism in these four countries, especially in Poland and Hungary, with Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán, respectively as the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) party leader in Poland and the Prime Minister of Hungary (Przybylski, 2017).

Austria cooperates with the V4 is the framework of the V4+, with as well Croatia and Slovenia. The FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache already declared being willing to get closer to the Visegrád Group, as the five countries share common views, notably on migration. Indeed, the four countries of the Visegrád Group refused to implement the quota system decided by the European Commission. The situation in Austria is a bit different. The country did not boycott the relocation scheme, however the political rhetoric toughened, as many asylum seekers crossed the border between Hungary and Austria, or with Italy. The recent declarations from FPÖ advocate the closing of borders, but even the ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz praised Hungary for building fences on the borders with Croatia and Serbia, and keeping refugees outside the EU territory (Nasralla and Heinrich,2017). Immigration is not the only subject the V4 and Austria agree on. Regarding EU integration, the five countries seem to be unwilling to give more power to EU institutions (Chandler, 2017).

The stands against Brussels could, in the future, be a common ground for cooperation for the V4 and Austria, and speculations over Austria joining the Visegrád countries can already be read in the media. This could represent a threat for the unity within the EU, and even more if we take into account the fact that Austria will be holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from July 2018 (Chandler and Pallenberg, 2017). It could definitely be an opportunity for Vienna to exert influence toward – maybe – less Europe.

Elodie Thevenin is studying for a Double Degree Programme in European Studies at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland and the Institute of Political Studies in Strasbourg, France.


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