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A red-blue wave (in Austria)?

The Austrian state of Burgenland’s recent experience of a Social Democrat-Nationalist coalition, shows that such an arrangement may once again become a fixture in the country’s politics.

April 7, 2021 - Stefano Arroque - Articles and Commentary

The Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, the capital of Burgenland in Austria. Photo: Herbert Frank flickr.com

Post-war Austrian politics, at least until the 1990s, has not been known for its unpredictability or diversity when it comes to coalitions. Austria holds the peculiar distinction of having been ruled by a ‘grand coalition’ (a government composed of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)) for longer than most European countries. In a period when these coalitions were much less common across the continent at various levels, they became an integral part of the Austrian political sphere. Of course, third parties already existed, and have occasionally taken part in government. This is especially true since the creation of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in 1956. Nevertheless, the system was by definition dominated by the two largest parties both in the federal parliament and in the nine state legislatures, known as Landtage.

Since the 1990s, and, more significantly, since 2015, the dominant two-party system and grand coalition ‘standard’ have both undergone a significant erosion at federal and state levels. As I have previously written, federal and state coalitions are notoriously independent and often directly contradict each other. However, Landtag-level coalitions are now increasingly prominent in discourse surrounding federal coalition-building. They tend to be portrayed as either potential alternatives or as ‘mirrors’ to a present or prospective political agreement. As such, federal and state decision-making regarding coalitions have become more closely connected on a rhetorical level. At the same time, both levels of administration have retained their relatively high levels of institutional independence. Currently, coalitions present in the regional Landtage are more often used as models or mirrors for potential agreements at the federal level.

While the existence of a precedent for a certain coalition arrangement in an Austrian state government may not be the most important factor in federal coalition building outside of the grand coalition framework, its importance should not be ruled out. This is particularly true when it comes to granting legitimacy to an unorthodox arrangement. Moreover, both the SPÖ and the ÖVP are parties with a large, ideologically diverse membership. Due to this, state coalitions that reflect the preferences of one party wing may be used as a rhetorical tool to pressure other factions. This was clear in the case of two coalitions involving the ÖVP and FPÖ, known as Black-Blue coalitions due to the parties’ traditional colours (the SPÖ being identified with the colour Red), led by Wolfgang Schüssel and Sebastian Kurz respectively. Criticism from prominent centrists in the Christian democratic party continued even after the formation of these governments. The deliberate choice of Salzburg Landeshauptmann (head of a Austrian state government) Wilfried Haslauer Jr. to form a coalition different to that in Vienna was a clear example of factional infighting. This coalition was later justified through appeals to Salzburg’s “Catholic and social emphasis”. Similar developments took place within the SPÖ during coalition-building efforts with the FPÖ. This was clear in the case of Burgenland, as well as in discussions surrounding potential Red-Blue coalitions in the aftermath of the 2017 and 2019 elections.

The first red-blue coalitions

For the purpose of this analysis, it is important to distinguish between the FPÖ’s activities before and after the leadership of Jörg Haider. This distinction should be made as SPÖ-FPÖ coalitions did exist at the federal level in the past. These were made possible by the FPÖ’s shift to the centre in the 1980s under party leader Norbert Steger. The Freedom Party worked with three Social Democratic chancellors in various circumstances throughout the decade. This was often a subject of controversy in the media and among the SPÖ membership itself. After an informal working arrangement with Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the two parties formed an official coalition, which was the first of its kind. This coalition was led by Kreisky’s successor Fred Sinowatz whilst Steger served as Vice-Chancellor. Sinowatz’s government was mostly characterised by liberal, even progressive measures, which were often at odds with a strong conservative opposition both inside and outside parliament. The government itself was short-lived and marked by various political and economic challenges. This often resulted in tension between the coalition partners. Nevertheless, the FPÖ maintained its support for the government, as Steger was successful in sidelining the party’s nationalists while strengthening its liberal wing. After three years in office, Sinowatz resigned in 1986. This was due to mounting pressure over the ‘Waldheim affair’ and his perceived inability to stop the controversial ÖVP politician from winning the presidency. This position had been held by the Social Democrats for four decades. In the FPÖ, Steger and the liberals were now losing influence. Shortly after the end of the Sinowatz government, Steger was replaced by Haider, supported by the party’s nationalist wing.

The party’s subsequent adoption of a nationalist platform led to the breakup of the last of these coalitions. This was led by Sinowatz’s successor Franz Vranitzky and lasted less than a year. Vranitzky brought down the Red-Blue government in favour of a grand coalition due to disagreements over Haider’s positions. As Haider’s nationalist programme was maintained, and even strengthened by his successors in the FPÖ leadership, common ground with the Social Democrats has become increasingly difficult to find. With the brief exception of a Haider-led government in Carinthia, no Red-Blue coalition was formed again in Austria until 2015.

The Burgenland experiment

Following Landtag elections in 2015, the outgoing Burgenland Landeshauptmann Hans Niessl announced that he would seek to form a coalition with the FPÖ. This marked a distinct break from the grand coalitions that constituted his three previous cabinets. Negotiations between the two parties were concluded within weeks. This resulted in an SPÖ-dominated cabinet led by Niessl, now in his fourth mandate, with local FPÖ leader Johann Tschürtz as his deputy. Despite the quick negotiations period, Niessl’s decision was met with fierce resistance from within the SPÖ ranks. This was particularly clear regarding the party’s more left-wing groups and federal leadership. Werner Faymann, at the time both SPÖ leader and Chancellor, quickly described the coalition as a state level decision that found no correspondence in Vienna. Party policy regarding the FPÖ at the federal level was to remain unchanged. Faymann’s lukewarm reaction ruled out support for the Red-Blue coalition but stopped short of condemning Niessl or the Burgenland SPÖ. In Austria, an official rebuke from the party leader to a state level counterpart remains a move of last resort.

Several Austrian newspaper and media groups argued that the Niessl IV cabinet showed that the coalition was plausible. This was despite high levels of opposition among both parties’ rank and file. Overall, no red lines seemed definitive and no programme differences insurmountable. Even within the SPÖ itself, Niessl found sympathetic voices who considered his choice to be pragmatic. These supporters often pointed to state-specific circumstances that could justify a change in the Social Democrats’ near-consensus on Red-Blue coalitions. Over time, the controversy faded and Niessl went on to govern with the FPÖ for nearly four years. He was then succeeded by Hans Peter Doskozil, who maintained the Red-Blue majority. Despite strong reactions from media and party alike, pragmatism appeared to have triumphed over ideological and electoral concerns in Burgenland.

The Red-Blue experiment came to a relatively abrupt end in 2020 following the ‘Ibiza affair’. This scandal was centred on then FPÖ leader and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, as well as one of his party deputies Johann Gudenus. The Ibiza affair led Chancellor Kurz to withdraw the ÖVP from the governing majority, subsequently leading the country to an early election. This time, however, the developments in Vienna (and, oddly enough, Ibiza) had a much greater impact in Burgenland. Less than one year into his mandate and anticipating new state elections, Doskozil ended the Red-Blue coalition in line with wider party feelings. As the SPÖ won enough seats to form a majority, Doskozil was reconfirmed as Landeshauptmann. This time, there were no Blue counterparts.

Lessons from Burgenland

Ultimately, the Red-Blue government in Burgenland fell as a consequence of the crisis generated by the Ibiza affair. This scandal decimated the FPÖ’s popularity nationwide. Over the past few months, however, the party has been slowly regaining influence. This is largely due to the pandemic, which has taken centre stage in the country’s political discussions. Collective memory regarding the scandal is also slowly fading. In the current political situation, it is very difficult to imagine the FPÖ joining any coalition at the federal level. Other options would likely be preferred by either the SPÖ or the ÖVP. However, its opposition to Kurz’s lockdown and social distancing measures has allowed it to recover part of the right-wing electorate. In future Landtag elections it may once again become a kingmaker. There are currently two scenarios that could lead to a Red-Blue coalition can be identified.

The first scenario would be a rapprochement between the two parties, especially on the topics that most divide them, such as immigration, security and Europe. This could happen if the FPÖ shifts to the centre or the Social Democrats adopt a less left-leaning platform. These conditions made the Sinowatz government possible, as the coalition was only disrupted by the parties drifting apart due to Haider’s leadership. Another “Sinowatz scenario” could make a Red-Blue coalition possible in the federal parliament as well as in the Landtage. At the same time, the strong presence of liberal forces in the Austrian parliament suggests that it is highly unlikely that the FPÖ would adopt a more liberal programme and risk alienating its nationalist electorate. Likewise, the SPÖ is unlikely to significantly change its approach to these topics under the current leadership. Even if the party were to follow their Danish counterparts and adopt a harder line on the aforementioned topics, the party’s rank and file would likely resist any moves towards a coalition with the FPÖ.

The second and most likely possibility would be the ‘Niessl scenario’. This would see the formation of Red-Blue coalitions at the Landtag level with tacit approval, or indifference, from the federal party leaderships. Despite its chaotic end, it would be difficult to consider Niessl’s political bet a failure from the SPÖ’s point of view. The coalition lasted for nearly an entire parliament and the subsequent elections allowed the Social Democrats to govern alone. Doskozil’s decision to pull the plug on his own government was rewarded by the electorate, including former FPÖ voters. A similar pattern was observed, albeit to a lesser extent, during the 2019 federal elections. This will hardly be overlooked by regional political leaders, including those in the SPÖ. Furthermore, the relative independence between state and federal coalition-building, as well as a comparative lack of disagreement regarding state level policy, suggest that a Red-Blue coalition may be more likely in the Landtage. It is unlikely that such a coalition will be formed in the short term, not least due to Austria’s electoral calendar (the next Landtag election will take place in Upper Austria, an ÖVP/centre-right stronghold for over a hundred years). However, as the FPÖ regains strength under the pragmatic Norbert Hofer, overtures may become all the more likely. Currently, both parties continue to struggle with the ÖVP’s political dominance. If this would allow the SPÖ to take up a leadership role, an overture to the FPÖ would become all the more likely.

Red-Blue coalitions are unlikely to become commonplace in the Austrian Landtage or federal parliament anytime soon. It is, however, possible that an increasing number of aspiring state level leaders may attempt to replicate Niessl’s experiment, especially in more conservative states, where the left-wing factions of the SPÖ are weaker. Should this happen, particularly if said coalitions are to be led by Social Democrats, internal pressure might increase within the SPÖ for a more favourable outlook on Red-Blue governments. The most likely outcome, however, is the maintenance of a cautious approach. As a result, SPÖ leaders could cautiously rule out Red-Blue arrangements in official discourse while offering tacit, if not reluctant, approval for their formation in Landtage should this prove beneficial. As Niessl and Doskozil demonstrated, sometimes going against the party line and taking an unorthodox approach can pay off. Whether others will follow their lead, as well as how the SPÖ would react to it, remains to be seen.

Stefano Arroque holds an MA in European Studies from the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium. His research focuses on Italy and Central and Eastern European countries, with a particular interest in regional and parliamentary politics. 

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