Austria – Will the April presidential elections bring an end to the SPÖ-ÖVP dominance of federal politics?

Politics in Austria since reinstatement of the republic in 1945 dominated by the two mass parties, SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) and ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party). Presidential  elections have thereby been no exception. After Austria’s first post-WW II head of state, Karl Renner (SPÖ), had still been held indirectly in a joint sessions of the two chambers of parliament, Austrian voters have chosen their president by popular vote since 1951. On 24 April, Austrians are once again called to the polls to elected a new president after president Heinz Fischer (independent; previously SPÖ) served two consecutive and is not eligible for re-election. However, for the first time in 75 years, it appears possible that not a candidate of either of the big parties will win the race for the Hofburg, the seat of the Austrian presidency.

The dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP in previous elections

% of first round votes for SPÖ and ÖVP candidates 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

During the last 75 years, candidates nominated by SPÖ and ÖVP dominated the candidate field in presidential elections and in almost half of them other parties yielded to their dominance and fielded no candidates. Even when other candidates were in the running, SPÖ and ÖVP managed to capture an overwhelming majority of valid 1st round votes. Subsequently, all run-off elections were also decided between SPÖ and ÖVP candidates. Only on three occasions – on each of which the incumbent of the respective other party ran ran for re-election – have these parties not nominated their own candidate.

This dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP becomes even clearer when looking at the effective number of candidates (ENC) throughout the years – irrespective of whether Laakso’s and Taagepera’s or Golosov’s measure is used and how many actual candidates contest the election, the ENC stays close to or below 2. The indices also highlight the extreme change that the 2016 election might bring based on recent opinion polls – both exhibit scores that are more than twice as high as their previous average (Laakso & Taagepera: 5.341; Golosov: 4.658) and come close to approximating the actual number of candidates, signifying a relatively evenly matched field of competing candidates. The actual number of candidates in this election also ties the previous record of six candidates in 1951 and it is the first time that two independent candidates (i.e. not nominated or officially supported by any party) are competing for the presidency.

Candidates and competition in Austrian presidential elections, 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

A look the candidates in the 2016 elections

The above figures have already shown that this election is far from being dominated by the candidates of only two parties. Yet, recent opinion polls (see below) illustrate just how much this election differs from previous contests as the candidates of neither SPÖ nor ÖVP are even among the front-runners but trail behind in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

The field of candidates is headed by Alexander Van der Bellen, an economic professor, former member of parliament and leader of the Green Party. While he is officially running as an independent, the Green Party is financing his campaign. As Der Standard notes, his nominal independence means that he could avoid a lengthy nomination procedure (requiring only the party leadership’s support) and his campaign is not bound by the same complicated transparency regulations of the Austrian party law as party-nominees. In addition, it is very likely a way to make his candidacy more appealing to voters of other parties (Van der Bellen’s personal popularity has always exceeded that of his party). This interpretation is also supported by the fact that one of the aims of his campaign, which otherwise focusses on a number of traditionally green and left-of-centre postulates, is to “become the first president who does not come from the big party apparatusses [i.e. SPÖ/ÖVP], who serves independently” – thus mirroring the rhetoric of independent Slovak president Andrej Kiska in 2014. Should he win, Van der Bellen would only be the second Green president in the world after Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis.

The fact that Norbert Hofer, candidate of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), follows in second place is less surprising. The FPÖ (whose inclusion in the federal government by the ÖVP 2000-2003 led to calls for sanctions from other EU nations) has benefited greatly from the refugee crisis during which its xenophobic rhetoric and clear stance resonated with many Austrians and let the party rise in the polls. Hofer, a member and third deputy speaker of the Austrian National Council, has also integrated a number of other slogans used by right-wing populists across Europe into his campaign (e.g. criticism of the EU, more direct democracy). Given his steady performance in the polls, Hofer will quite likely make it into the second round unless Griss’ ratings rise any further.

candidates and polls in the Austrian presidential elections 2016_presidential-power.com

The performance of third-ranking candidate Irmgard Griss is not only notable because she is likely to achieve the best result of an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, but also because of her ability to fundraise (she has received the highest amount of all candidates so far). Griss is a lawyer and former president of the Austrian Supreme Court and originally entertained the idea of a candidacy as a joint candidate of SPÖ and ÖVP, yet as these failed to support her, she announced that she was running as an independent. Her campaign is in many ways a crossover between those of the two frontrunners as she stresses her independence from party politics (in many ways postulating a form of ‘anti-politics’) on the one hand and criticises the government for its handling of the refugee crisis. As a centre-right candidate she is likely to be supported by disappointed ÖVP-voters and get part of the conservative-leaning protest vote. It is difficult to establish whether she is a danger to Hofer, yet her polling results have recently improved.

Rudold Hundstorfer was presented as the SPÖ candidate in mid-January 2016. As a former trade union official and cabinet minister in the Faymann governments personifies the ‘old politics’ of the Austrian party-state, one of the reasons that he may be trailing behind in the polls. Compared to his rivals, Hundstorfer’s campaign is also relatively bland and lacks concrete political demands. While this and his campaign slogan “The uniting force” reflect the largely ceremonial role of the Austrian presidency according to established constitutional practice (yet in contrast to its formal powers), it appears to be relatively unpopular with voters.

Andreas Khol, a long-time chairman of the ÖVP parliamentary group and speaker of the National Council, in many ways shares the ‘flaws’ of his SPÖ contender. His campaign focusses mainly on his experience as a politician and contacts with foreign heads of state. His 6 children and 15 grandchildren are listed as proof of his support for traditional family values (although it should be mentioned that he can be described as relatively progressive compared to others in his party). Apart from that, it also lacks the appeal of the three front-runners.

Last-placed candidate is Viennese construction mogul and socialite Richard Lugner (now best-known for paying celebrities to accompany him to the Vienna Opera Ball). Lugner already once ran for president in 1998, receiving 9.9% of the vote. However, he subsequently failed to build on his success and enter parliament with his movement “The Independents” one year later. After initially falling short of signatures to register his candidacy, Lugner managed to deliver the missing declarations of support within a three-day grace period granted by the Federal Election Agency. After Lugner’s 1998 campaign was still earnest, his current campaign appears to be far from serious. It is focussed on a campaign song performed by himself (watch it here) in which he praises his significantly younger wife’s physical assets (claiming that even Putin has her poster in his wardrobe) and declares to appoint FPÖ party chairman Hans-Christian Strache as Federal Chancellor to “tidy up” Austrian politics.

The 2016 election: Ending the two-party hegemony?

Based on current opinion polls, Van der Bellen and Hofer seem to be relatively set for entering a run-off. Griss, who has been rising in the polls, might however still interfere with this set-up. This constellation notwithstanding, it seems very unlikely that either SPÖ or ÖVP will see their candidates enter the run-off or win the presidential election. The SPÖ will likely support Van der Bellen in a run-off against either Hofer or Griss. The ÖVP on the other hand will likely only support the non-partisan Griss. While Hofer would surely look more kindly on the ÖVP than on its senior coalition partner SPÖ, the FPÖ remains a political pariah on the federal level and supporting their candidate might thus have negative consequences for ÖVP both on the national and international level. Hofer and Griss would most likely endorse each other’s candidacies, yet Griss may be more reluctant to do so if she aims to obtain any other political office. In accordance with his song, Lugner will likely throw his support behind Hofer, yet his endorsement is likely to remain with little influence in any case.

In any case, this presidential election will see an important break with the two-party hegemony of SPÖ and ÖVP which has long dominated Austrian politics. It also shows the immense political impact of the refugee crisis and the dissatisfaction of voters with the political class which was already visible in the 2013 general elections when the new parties “Team Stronach” (economically liberal and eurosceptic party founded by billionaire Frank Stronach) and NEOS (economically and socially liberal party which emerged from a number of citizens’ initiatives) entered the National Council. It remains to be seen which effect the results of the election will have on the established parties. A strong finish of FPÖ candidate Hofer (even in third place) will likely boost the party’s electoral prospects (the next federal elections are due 2018) while the Green Party will not necessarily profit from Van der Bellen’s performance due to its niche appeal. The results of SPÖ and ÖVP – who voters might now also punish for merely general dissatisfaction – on the other hand could be part of a general trend in which mass parties lose their appeal to voters (a prime example of this would be the German Social Democrats).

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