EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

On 15 October 2017, early parliamentary elections took place in Austria. The total voters’ turnout reached 80 percent, which is a bit more than the average from last years. The reason for the high turnout can be attributed to the migration situation, increasing streams of Euroscepticism and general high public interest in politics.

As expected, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) won the elections with 32 percent of the votes, thus acquiring 65 seats out of 183 in the National Council. Second emerged the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), of the current prime minister Christian Kern, scoring 26,9 percent of votes, which equals 52 MPs. Third came the far-right and populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) scoring 26 percent of votes, thus netting them a total of 51 MPs in the National Council.

The head of Peoples Party is thirty-one-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who used to be the minister of External Affairs in the proceeding government and is now on his way to become the youngest European leader and Austrian chancellor yet. Going forward, the three parties mentioned above will be joined by two more parties that made it to the National Council; the liberal party Neos as well as Pilz’s new party, which gained 5.3 and 4.4 percent of the votes respectively.

What is remarkable about these elections, is that the Green party didn’t make it through. Support for the Greens fell to 3.9 percent from more than 12 percent in 2013. The threshold to join parliament is 4 percent. Austria’s parliament will therefore have five parties in total.

It is the first time the Greens did not make it to the National Council since 1986, which might result in a change in leadership or in party’s policy – or both. It is very likely that many voters usually voting for the Greens favoured the Pilz’s new party, since Peter Pilzs used to be a prominent member of the Greens.

In order to understand the outcome of these election, we have to take a look at recent history. Since 2006, Austria has been ruled by grand coalitions made up of Social democrats and People’s Party of Austria, which led to overall stagnation and to no major changes. We saw similar problems in Germany, where the last grand coalition made up of CDU/CSU and SPD faced similar problems as the grand coalition in Austria. The grand coalition is an arrangement in which the two largest political parties of opposing political ideologies unite in a coalition government after attempts to form a coalition with smaller parties fail. Predictably, the problem arises when they do not agree on major issues and will only come to an agreement in general points. These are the reasons that support the statement regarding stagnation and lack of efficiency of Austrian coalition in the past few years. Moreover, the grand coalition in Austria could not come up with solutions regarding the migrant crises and struggled to reform the tax system. It seems like the great influx of immigrants into the country caused divisions in the society and a crisis of solidarity. This is one of the reasons why FFÖ gained more support in these elections than in 2013.

One of the hot topics of these elections was the Austrian immigration policy, regarding the reduction of social benefits for all refugees. The Freedom party aims to reduce these financial benefits from 840 euro to only 560 euro. By doing so, a lot of money would be spared since Austria has accepted over one hundred thousand immigrants in the last three years. Another important topic was Austria’s economic policy. Sebastian Kurz made it clear that will be his priority to cut taxes, in order to create economic growth, as people who buy goods will have more money to spend.

A renewed centre party coalition between the ÖVP and the SPÖ, that has ruled since 2006, is not out of the question, however a new alliance between ÖVP and FPÖ is by far the most likely outcome.

A big issue of these negotiations is the position and role of the Freedom Party. It is important to point out that the Freedom Party has recorded its biggest success since 1999. However, the Freedom Party has been present in the National Council since the end of 1940s, which makes it a traditional European party, unlike other European populistic and extremist parties that has risen in recent years as inherently anti-establishment parties and movements.

The party emphasises restriction of immigration to Austria. They are in favour of closing some Muslim institutions such as Muslim kindergartens. They would like to increase security in the country by investing more money in secret and security services. This would, according to them, lead to higher security and prevention of potential terrorist attacks in future. FPÖ would also like to reinforce the external borders of the European Union by increasing its security budget, which would result in intensification of European costal and border guards’ units. Beyond migration, the Freedom Party and the People’s party share many of the Eurosceptic opinions held by governments in Central Europe.

Future Kurz’s government will most likely emphasise the deepening of relations with the Visegrad Group countries, in this case with partners who refuse EU policy regarding quotas and compulsion on national acceptance of migrants. Future Czech-Austrian mutual diplomatic relations are to an extent uncertain. We can expect mutual consensus on some issues, however there are many other matters, which may appear problematic. Problems could arise when it comes to sending money to European citizens, who actively work in Austria.

Many Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians that work in Austria are entitled to receive children fees, which they send back to their home countries. This is something that the Austrian government wants to change and will therefore set stricter regulation to reduce such cash outflow. The room for cooperation is therefore to some extend limited.

In general, we can expect that Austria will slightly shift its policy to the right and will take similar position like Slovakia or Czech Republic, who are more pro-Western and pro-European than the remaining two members of the V4 group.

Jan Trojáček

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