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Salzburg’s elections closes a victorious electoral year for Sebastian Kurz

The Austrian right is cementing its position at the local level after last years success in the country’s legislative elections. What can be understood from this years regional vote in four Austrian States?

April 27, 2018 - Stefano Arroque - Analysis

Salzburg - view from Mönchsberg Photo: thisisbossi (cc) flickr.com

Last Sunday, the Austrian State of Salzburg went to the polls to elect its new regional parliament, and to determine which parties will form its government for the next five years. Salzburg has closed this year’s State electoral cycle, which has seen Prime-Minister Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party (ÖVP) win in all but one State legislature. In Salzburg, it won with 37 per cent of the vote – up 8 per cent compared to the last election – and 15 seats in parliament, followed by the Social Democrats, with 20 per cent and 8 seats, and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), with 19 per cent and 7 seats. This victory is an important one, and an indicative of the party’s strength under its new leader and Chancellor.

In Austria’s coalition-based politics, regional alliances are largely independent from the Federal government, and it is not uncommon for parties who are in opposition at a Federal level to cooperate in one or more States, and vice-versa. In the easternmost State of Burgenland, for example, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) has governed with the far-right FPÖ since 2015. At that time, the SPÖ was the main party in the Federal coalition, while the FPÖ was in the opposition. Three years later, the FPÖ is the junior coalition partner to a government that has the SPÖ as its main opposition. Now, in fact, only in Upper Austria does the State government coalition coincide with the Federal one, although it has been in place since before last year’s election.

Leaning right 

State politics in Austria and elsewhere are strongly defined by a specific State’s political and electoral history, which must always be taken into account when analysing their results. Besides Salzburg, three other States went to the polls this year: Lower Austria, Tirol and Carinthia. In all of them, the stakes were particularly high for both the FPÖ – whose seemingly unstoppable rise had been showing signs of weakening – and for a slowly resurging SPÖ, while the ÖVP has historically been the dominant force in the first two. Lower Austrian voters awarded more seats than expected to Chancellor Kurz’s party, helped, in part, by a scandal involving Udo Landbauer, the local FPÖ candidate, and a student fraternity with links to neo-Nazism.

Despite both Mr. Landbauer and the Lower Austrian FPÖ having distanced themselves from the fraternity, the national repercussion of the case caused the party to lose some of its voters. Nevertheless, it managed to double its voting share compared to the last election. In Tirol, where the ÖVP has never lost an election, and is currently governing in a coalition with the local Greens, the far-right was expected to secure a safe second-place, albeit with a double-digit distance from the People’s Party. Carinthia was the exception to this year’s trend. The region, where for the last two decades the strongest parties have been the SPÖ and the FPÖ, has delivered a sound victory to the former, with almost 50 per cent of the votes, followed by the latter with 23 per cent and the ÖVP with 15 per cent.

A State within a State

Salzburg, however, presents a much more competitive environment for all parties involved. While it is true that an ÖVP member has occupied the State’s Presidency in all but two of the post-War governments, the party’s numerical advantage over the Social Democrats tended to be slim. In 2013, when the last election before last Sunday’s took place, the ÖVP won 29 perc ent of the vote, and came in first place for the first time since 1999, with a six-point advantage over the SPÖ. The Social Democrats, at that time, suffered heavy losses, strengthening the Green Party, which came in third place with a historic 20 per cent of the vote, while the FPÖ came in fourth place with 17 per cent. The SPÖ-dominated Grand Coalition gave way to an ÖVP-Green government with support from members of Team Stronach – a defunct right-wing party – led by Wilfried Haslauer junior, who had led the regional section of the People’s Party since 2004.

This year’s vote was held under very different circumstances, both at Federal and local levels. The Federal government is now held by ÖVP and FPÖ, rather than the traditional Grand Coalition. Chancellor Kurz’s party had been growing steadily in popularity since his rise to the leadership, having come in first place in the 2017 election and in every opinion poll held ever since. The results in Tirol and Lower Austria, while not representative of the nation as a whole, had been positive. Moreover, Salzburg was the second best State for the ÖVP at least year’s election, winning almost 40 per cent of the votes. The SPÖ, relegated to the opposition, has been trying to recover from its defeat and to re-establish itself as a force capable of competing with the ÖVP.

The FPÖ, junior party in Mr. Kurz’s coalition, has seen its popularity drop in recent national opinion polls, while at the local level the party has been marred by political infighting. In 2015, then-FPÖ leader Karl Schnell split with the Federal party, establishing the Free Party of Salzburg (FPS), with a platform even further to the right than that of the FPÖ. Of the 6 deputies elected by the FPÖ in 2013, only one did not join Mr. Schnell’s party. With each party filing its own candidates in the election, the risk of splitting the far-right vote was high. The Greens, having been ousted from Parliament and performing poorly in all State elections, were expected to gain around 15 per cent of the vote, with some polls indicating as low as 11 per cent – significantly lower than the previous 19 per cent. Furthermore, NEOS, a liberal, pro-market party, was widely expected to pass the 5 per cent threshold and enter the Salzburger parliament for the first time.

Salzburg decides

When the results came, it became evident that Salzburg had experienced a significant shift to the right. Other than the strong showing from the People’s Party, repeating its 2017 performance, it is important to analyse the close race between the Social Democrats and the far-right, as well as the Greens’ performance. While the distance between SPÖ and FPÖ is small, the former has had its worst performance since 1945, while the latter has managed to slightly increase its voting share despite the dispute with the FPS – which, itself, secured 4.5 per cent, thus staying out of parliament. Had the far-right been unified, it would have become the second-strongest bloc for the first time ever in Salzburg. The Social Democrats performed below the most recent expectations, but in practical terms only lost one seat. Last Sunday’s biggest loser was, in fact, the Green Party, which received less than half the votes it had received in 2013, dropping its percentage from 20 to 9 points, and only managed to secure three seats, down from the previous seven. Also performing well was NEOS, with slightly above 7 per cent of the vote and 3 seats.

Despite the gains made by the People’s Party, the poor performance from the Greens has cost the government its parliamentary majority. Mr. Haslauer has now started coalition talks, with three options on the table: a Grand Coalition, a Federal-style government with the FPÖ, or a three-way pact with the Greens and NEOS. Traditionally, a Grand Coalition was the outcome of choice for Austrian politicians whenever there was a deadlock. Such a practise has come under fire lately, and it is widely believed that dissatisfaction over the perceived willingness of the two establishment parties to cooperate has been one of the main catalysers of the populists’ growth – as well as of Mr. Kurz’s efforts to rebrand and modernise his party. In this sense, a coalition with the Freedom Party is the second strongest option in parliamentary terms.

When combined, ÖVP and FPÖ have 60 per cent of the parliament, and only one seat less than the Grand Coalition. Mr. Haslauer, however, has mentioned the possibility with little enthusiasm and, while remaining open to all options, appears to favour a coalition closer to the centre. A tripartite government with the Green and NEOS is the least likely of the three possibilities, given the strongly different views on the economy held by the parties. The Greens’ penchant for regulations run counter to NEOS’ liberal platform, one of the party’s defining features. A parallel can be traced to last year’s failed coalition negotiations in Germany, when Chancellor Angela Merkel failed to seal a coalition deal with the local Green party and the pro-market Free Democrats. Whatever coalition partner Mr. Haslauer chooses, it will have a much reduced power when compared to the ÖVP, which has re-established its former dominant position in the State of Salzburg.

The results in Salzburg close a good electoral year for the Austrian People’s Party, which has cemented itself as the main political party after ten years as junior partner in a SPÖ-led coalition. In all but one region, it has managed to either increase its voting share or to maintain already large voting shares. Moreover, it has maintained a steady lead in all opinion polls for the Federal parliament, with similar numbers to those obtained in last year’s election. In contrast, the FPÖ has proved itself to be susceptible to public opinion scandals, while, at the same time, maintaining a strongly committed voter base, willing to support it even in cases such as that of Lower Austria. Under its current format and leadership, the party is unlikely to grow much more than it already has – at the same time, the chances of an electoral debacle is equally low.

The Social Democrats, faced with the challenge of competing in mostly conservative States, have maintained relatively low results everywhere but in Carinthia, where their voting share has greatly improved. The poor result in Salzburg, a region where the party used to perform well despite its almost constant second place, are a sign of voter weariness. Whether the SPÖ will reform itself in a similar way to the ÖVP, change its political program or maintain a similar platform and style; and whether its slow resurgence in opinion polls will be matched by future results at Federal and State levels remains to be seen. In the two smaller parties, the mood is starkly different: while NEOS has been growing and occupying a similar place to that of Germany’s Free Democrats, the Greens fight to keep their relevance and to avoid disappearing or being absorbed by the other parties.

A pleased Chancellor

Ultimately, the main lesson drawn from Salzburg and the other regions is that Mr. Kurz’s rebranding strategy has worked. The New People’s Party, as Mr. Kurz has branded the party under his leadership, has managed to steal the FPÖ’s momentum by presenting itself as a reformed party with established roots, willing to be tough on determined matters while keeping all forms of extremism at bay. By introducing a Macron-esque element to a strong political brand, the Austrian Chancellor has combined the electoral allure of renewal with the safety of experience. It has been proved to be an efficient strategy, one that entails a responsibility to deliver on both accounts. If the ÖVP wishes to maintain its dominant position, it is imperative now to seize the momentum and deliver strong results and efficient policies – both in Vienna and in the State governments. 

Stefano Arroque is from Porto Alegre, Brazil. He holds a Bachelors Degree in International Relations from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). His research focuses on Central Europe and Italy.

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