Tag Archives: Van der Bellen

Marcelo Jenny: Austria – Legislative election results leave the president little leeway in government formation

This is a guest post by Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck.

Like many elections the results of Austria’s legislative elections on October 15th were a mix of expected and surprising elements. Among the surprising bits was a strong increase in electoral turnout from 74.9 %in the last legislative elections of 2013 to 79.4 %on Sunday. This is also well above the 74.2 %turnout in the final round of Austria’s presidential elections in December 2016, when the former long-time chairman of the Green party, Alexander van der Bellen, won against rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and was sworn in in January 2017 as the country’s first president not belonging to one the traditional government parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) or the christian-democratic People’s Party (ÖVP).

The president will be particularly hurt by the fate that befell his former party shortly after it celebrated its biggest ever electoral victory. Frustrated by intra-party conflict with young activists and senior MPs, who failed to be renominated as candidates, its female party leader resigned and was followed by two women as co-leaders but could not stop the Green’s downward slope in the polls. The Greens dropped from a vote share of 12.4 % in the last election in 2013 to 3.7 % and, thereby, also out of parliament while the new party ‘List Pilz’ led by renegade Green MP Peter Pilz, parliament’s most senior MP, successfully crossed the 4% threshold with a vote share of 4.4 %.

Final vote and seat sharesfor the parties will be announced on Thursday after the last small batch of postal votes has been counted, but only minor changes are expected to preliminary results published by the Ministry of the Interior (https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/).

Preliminary results of the Austrian legislative elections | Austrian Interior Ministry https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/

The happy winner of these elections is the ÖVP’s young party leader Sebastian Kurz (just 31 years old) who came into office in spring of this year, rebranded the party within weeks and successfully translated his personal popularity into a 31.5 % vote share (24.0% in 2013). He jumped from heading the third largest party in the polls to becoming leader of the largest parliamentary party. The SPÖ was relegated to second place with 26.9 % (26.8 in 2013), while the right-wing FPÖ came in third by a small margin with 26.0 % (20.5). The liberal party NEOS remains in parliament with 5.3 % (5.0 in 2013).

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz is on course to become the youngest leader of a government worldwide. Most observers expect the ÖVP to form a coalition with the FPÖ, and even if he wanted president Van der Bellen will be unable to do much about it. By political convention the president tasks the leader of the largest party with forming a new government. President Van der Bellen has not done that yet. He will talk with the leaders of the five parliamentay parties first. By convention the current government resgined after the election and has been asked by the president to keep serving until the new government is sworn in.

How long it will take to form a new government coalition is among the most speculated topic right now, but once Kurz returns to the president’s office equipped with a coalition agreement with the FPÖ, few expect Van der Bellen to take a stand against it. The electorate has decisively moved to the right in this election and the ÖVP’s appetite for a renewal of the coalition government with the Social Democratic Party is at an all-time low. An alternative coalition between SPÖ and Freedom Party would have a nominal parliamentary majority but the Social Democratic Party is deeply split on that idea, making such an outcome very unlikely.

In the coming weeks and perhaps months Van der Bellen will be closely watched and compared at each step with his immediate predecessor Heinz Fischer (who served the last two terms 2004-2016) and most of all with another former president, Thomas Klestil, who strongly opposed the formation of Austria’s first coalition government between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party in 2000 due to its anti-European stance. Klestil expressed his opposition to including the FPÖ in government very publicly and refused to accept two of its ministerial candidates. Reactions from other EU member states were likewise strongly negative and even triggered sanctions against Austria. Eventually, everybody emerged bruised from this episode.

The times have changed and nobody expects something similar to happen again this time around. Eurosceptic parties are more widespread today and Sebastian Kurz’ restrictive position on immigration, very similar to the position held by the FPÖ, is also popular among Central and Eastern European governments. Taking the current domestic and international context into account, president Van der Bellen’s leeway in making a personal imprint on the next government is very small.

Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck. His research focuses on electoral behaviour, election campaigns and party competition, parliamentarism, content analysis and sentiment analysis as well as political communication.

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

results-of-the-austrian-presidential-election-2016-presidential-power-com

The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

Austria – Political earthquake as candidates of far-right and Greens win first round of presidential elections

On Sunday, 24 April, Austrian were called to the polls for the first round of presidential elections. Norbert Hofer, candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), was the surprise winner with 36.4% of votes and thus 15% more than predicted by opinion polls. Hofer will now enter a run-off with Alexander Van der Bellen, a formally independent candidate supported by the Greens. Candidates of the government parties SPÖ and ÖVP which dominated Austrian federal politics since 1949 failed to make an impression on the voters and only polled a combined 22.4%, signalling a potential end to the politics of grand coalitions in Austria.

Results of the first round of presidential elections in Austria, 22 April 2016_presidential-power.com

The latest opinion polls before the election had predicted a relatively secure lead for Alexander Van der Bellen and a closer race for second place between Hofer and independent candidate Griss. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the election it was clear that Hofer had gained significantly more votes than expected and would enter the run-off while Van der Bellen and Griss would compete for second place. Although Van der Bellen eventually finished 2% ahead of Griss, her third place is still remarkable. Griss, a former president of the Austrian Supreme Court, was largely unknown to the Austrian public only a year ago and is not connected to any party (she received some indirect backing from the liberal NEOS party). Her result is also the best ever won by an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, surpassing previous record-holder Gertraud Knoll and her 1998 result of 13.6% by almost 2%. As expected, support for Andreas Khol (ÖVP) and Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ) as candidates of the governing parties remained low and both eventually received considerably less votes than predicted. After the combined vote share of SPÖ and ÖVP candidates averaged 89% 1951-2010 and never dropped below 63.4%, their combined vote share of just 22.4% is a clear signal that voters have become tired of the parties’ political dominance. The construction entrepreneur and Viennese socialite Richard Lugner (independent), whose campaign was widely ridiculed (or least not taken seriously), only received 2.3% of the vote – 7.6% less than in his first candidacy in 1998.

votes for candidates by voters' party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections

Source: Austrian Press Agency

A look at voters’ party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections shows the reasons for the weakness of candidates of established parties and the success of others. Both Khol and Hundstorfer were not able to mobilise a significant amount of voters beyond their core electorate and many ÖVP and SPÖ voters instead turned to other candidates. Hofer’s votes, too, mainly relied on the FPÖ electorate; however, he was also able to get votes from a number of other parties. A similar picture emerges for Van der Bellen – although 46% of his votes came from voters who already voted Green in 2013, he otherwise received support from voters of almost all other parties. The distribution of 2013 preferences among the voters of Irmgard Griss underscores her appeal across the political spectrum (despite generally centre-conservative policy positions). Although votes for Lugner also came from voters of a variety of 2013 preferences, he seems to have gathered the non-constructive (because inconsequential) protest vote.

All three front-runners tried hard in their campaigns to present themselves as anti-establishment candidates. For Griss, the success of this strategy is hardly surprising as she lacks a party affiliation and clearly differed from candidates in her rhetoric. It is much more surprising that Hofer, a prominent representative of the FPÖ, was able to make the same strategy work for him. A post-election survey showed that his youth (with just 45 years he is the youngest candidate) played in his favour. Furthermore, the ostracization of his party on the federal (and international) level aided his success. Van der Bellen, too, is a veteran politician and very much part of the political establishment, yet due to the marginal position of the Greens (they have not been part of any municipal, state or federal government so far) this seems to have mattered less for his voters. Van der Bellen also managed to mobilise the greatest absolute number of previous non-voters – 84,000 voters who did not vote in 2013 came out to vote for him while Hofer and Griss only mobilised 49,000 and 44,000 respectively.

After the announcement of results, all parties and candidates who failed to advance to the second round (except Griss who is still consulting with her team) declined to make a voting recommendation for the run-off. SPÖ and ÖVP, clearly shaken by the miserable performance of its candidates, thereby appears to try and keep their options open for a (further) decline in support at the next parliamentary elections in 2018, the strengthening of the FPÖ and the resulting necessity for forming different coalition. Although the possibility of early elections was mentioned regularly during the election night, this seems generally unlikely – a major reshuffle in the cabinet and at the helm of both parties on the other hand will likely take place soon. Neither Hofer nor Van der Bellen can be sure to win the run-off and need to continue campaigning hard.

Last, both candidates promise different ways of how they will behave in office (for a slightly different assessment, see here). Although both will be in cohabitation with the SPÖ-ÖVP government, Hofer is more likely to a more active president and use the formally considerable powers of the office (which includes the right to dismiss the government at will). Particularly in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections, Hofer could try to highlight perceived failings of the coalition parties and openly campaign for his party  – something office-holders have so far refrained from doing. Although analysts highlighted last night that in the past Austrian voters were reluctant to vote for either SPÖ or ÖVP when they already nominated the president (implying a reversed tailcoat effect), the days when voters could make such strategic decisions are now over – electoral fragmentation has risen steadily over the last decade and will most likely continue to do so in 2018. Hofer also threatened to dissolve the parliament should he win the election, yet this would be an unprecedented move and experts still argue about whether it would in fact be possible. In contrast to Hofer, Van der Bellen is much less likely to be active. First, the electoral potential of the Green party is limited (particularly in rural Austria) and seems to have reached a natural ceiling in the last elections when it gained 12.42%. Second, Van der Bellen is clearly opposed to a strengthening of the FPÖ. While he might decline to swear in a government after the elections that includes the far-right, he would need to be very careful not to lose too much of the ‘independent image’ created during this campaign and become the target of FPÖ’s anti-establishment campaign.