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Austria’s democratic wound

About the author
Anton Pelinka is a professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University. His books include Politics of the Lesser Evil: Leadership, Democracy, and Jaruzelski's Poland (Transaction, 1999); (co-ed, with Ruth Wodak) The Haider Phenomenon in Austria (Transaction, 2002); and Democracy Indian Style: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Creation of India's Political Culture (Transaction, 2003)

There is no news but bad news. Austria seems to have internalised this wisdom. To make headlines in the global media, Austria does its best: if it is not a cruel story about a man who imprisoned his daughter for years and fathered a number of children with her, it must be the revival of hard-right political sentiment. As if on cue, in the general election of 28 September 2008 two extremist rightwing parties - xenophobic, anti-European, and with a strong flavour of Nazi nostalgia - attracted 28% of the votes.
Anton Pelinka is professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University, Budapest, and director of the Institute of Conflict Research, Vienna. Among his books are (co-edited with Ruth Wodak) The Haider Phenomenon (Transaction, 2002), and Democracy Indian Style: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Creation of India's Political Culture (Transaction, 2003)

Also by Anton Pelinka in openDemocracy:

"Austria's sour victory" (6 October 2006)

True, this outcome represents also a legitimate protest against the do-nothing government the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) had been responsible for since January 2007. But there were other options for articulating this protest. Among them were the centrist Liberal Forum (LIF), which was again unable to overcome the 4% threshold to qualify for a place in the national council (parliament); and the Green Party, which did not profit from the protest and even lost a moderate number of votes.

A modern triumph

Thus it turned out that the main losers were the parties of the ruling coalition, the SPÖ and the ÖVP; and the main - indeed, taken together, the only - winner the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Association for Austria's Future (BZÖ). Both are in the tradition of the "pan-German" camp - a tradition which includes the history and narrative of the Austrian Nazi Party. The FPÖ was formed in 1955 under the chairmanship of a former SS general. The BZÖ is the strategic brainchild of Jörg Haider, who broke away from the FPÖ in 2005 amid strains over his efforts never to allow it to forget his and the FPÖ's roots.  Indeed, he is on record praising Hitler's employment policy and honouring SS veterans. His successor as leader of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache, was until quite recently involved in hardcore neo-Nazi activities. 

These facts are far from unknown. The FPÖ's and BZÖ's leaders' records, and their associated views on migration and European integration, have been widely advertised in Austria.  Their wild agitation against migrants, especially those with a Muslim background; their populist sloganising as a weapon of political attack; their use of the European Union a convenient scapegoat for everything the Austrians may find negative (mass transit through Austria, a slight increase of inflation, and the crime rate - even if all data show that crime is going down in Austria).

Austrian society is full of contradictions. Most Austrians are better off in economic terms than ever before. Everybody agrees that the country is profiting substantially from the European Union enlargement of 2004 when four of Austria's neighbours (Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia) joined the union. But many Austrians stubbornly believe that their individual situation is worsening; and for this perception, they are punishing whoever is there to be punished. 

But the reality is even worse: for as large numbers of Austrian voters did not just leave the major traditional parties but moved to the far-right, this is a kind of stubbornness that borders on self-molestation. If the "protest vote" had been centrist, within the moderate framework of the party system  (Green or Liberal, for example), there would have been no outcry - nor a debate about a decline in the quality of Austria's democracy. A different vote for parties belonging to established European party families is a normal democratic tremor; that for extremist outsiders is an earthquake. But hundreds of thousands Austrians decided to move to the extreme right - fulfilling the familiar stereotype (back to those headlines - and more than a few media commentaries) that Austria still refuses to learn its lesson from the past. 

The election results, and the change they represent since the previous election on 1 October 2006, are summarised in Table 1.

Results SPÖ ÖVP FPÖ BZÖ Greens Others
Percentage of votes 29.4 26.0 17.7 10.8 10.1 6.0
Seats 58 51 34 21 19 0
2006-08, change -10 -15 +13 +14 -2 0


(Source: Bundesministerium für Inneres, 2 October 2008 - without some of the absentee votes which could still mean the shift of one seat from one to another party)

The two major parties had their worst result in their history. Since the foundation of the democratic republic in 1945, the Social Democrats have never fallen below 30%. The ÖVP's worst result had been in 1999, when it received 26.9%; now it has sunk even lower. 

The FPÖ and the BZÖ together have now also achieved a result that exceeds the FPÖ's triumph in 1999, when the still-unified party also won 26.9% of the vote and - as a consequence of this electoral success - joined the ÖVP in a coalition that lasted from 2000 to 2006 (see "Austria's sour victory", 6 October 2006). 

The remorseless decline of the two main parties has not resulted in the arrival of any new party in parliament. Austria's otherwise perfect system of proportional representation imposes the requirement that a party must win 4% of the votes to qualify for seats in parliament: this has proved too much for the Liberals (who were represented in 1993-99); the protest party List Fritz Dinkhauser ("Fritz"), which tried to profit from regional dissatisfaction in Tyrol; the Communist Party; and a grouping of Christian fundamentalists.

Region, generation, education, gender, class

What can explain all this? One aspect which is difficult to interpret is the relationship between the two extreme-right parties. The reason for the split in 2005 was both strategic and personal. This helped create an expectation that only one of the two could survive as a relevant factor. Now, both are becoming stronger - and with a more or less similar agenda. 

The real difference between the FPÖ and BZÖ is regional. The BZÖ is first and foremost a phenomenon of Carinthia (where Haider is governor, and his party dominates regional politics). This remains true even though this time (in contrast to 2006) the BZÖ got a significant share of votes even outside Carinthia. The FPÖ is more of an all-Austrian party, and is especially strong in urban areas like Vienna. It is also rather weak in the BZÖ  heartland of Carinthia. 

More broadly, the changing trends in Austrian society over the last twenty years can help illuminate these results. During this period an evolving generation gap made its impact felt: with older voters remaining the backbone of the two major parties (SPÖ and ÖVP), younger ones disproportionally preferring the Green Party, and the FPÖ also doing quite well among the young (but much less so than the Greens). In 2008, this has changed quite dramatically: young people have moved to the FPÖ, with about one-third of the 16-29 age group voted for the FPÖ.

This trend is represented in Table 2:

Percentage of / voting for SPÖ ÖVP FPÖ BZÖ Greens
16-29 years 14 20 33 10 14
30-44 years 22 22 20 11 16
45-59 years 33 24 13 13 10
60-69 years 36 29 14 9 5
70 years and older 36 32 15 11 2


(Source: Fritz Plasser & Peter A Ulram, Die Wahlanalyse 2008: Wer hat wen warum gewählt? - a manuscript, presented to the media on 29 September 2008, based on a survey by GfK Austria).

The Greens have lost their pole-position among the young and started to become a party with a middle-aged electorate. But neither the SPÖ nor the ÖVP profited from this trend - the party attracting most of the young voters was the FPÖ.

Also on national elections in 2008 in openDemocracy:

Armine Ishkanian, "Democracy contested: Armenia's fifth presidential elections" (4 March 2008)

Ivan Briscoe, "From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (11 March 2008)

Bridget Welsh, "Malaysia's democratic opening" (11 March 2008)

Andrew Nickson, "Paraguay's historic election" (22 April 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's political carousel" (12 May 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's rivalrous coalition" (19 May 2008)

Kheang Un, "Cambodia's 2008 election: the end of opposition?" (5 August 2008)

Lara Pawson, "Angola's elections: the politics of no change" (23 September 2008)

Plus: regular comment and analysis on elections in Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom in openDemocracy's sections

This is of particular interest because Austria was (in 2007) the first among European democracies to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. A twist in this story is that the only party opposing this constitutional change was the FPÖ - the very party which has (in the first election under the new rule) most benefited.

In respect to gender, the FPÖ is still a predominantly male party: the ratio between the percentage of male and female voters ("gender gap") was 20% to 16%. The prototype of the FPÖ voter is young and male - and without higher education. Among the voters with higher education, the FPÖ was able to win only 12% and the BZÖ 8% (against the SPÖ's 25%, the ÖVP's 27%, the Greens' 19%). The Greens and the ÖVP are still the two parties with an disproportionate percentage of votes coming from Austrians with higher education. 

The FPÖ (in an echo of progress made by other European rightwing "populist" parties) has become the dominant party among the working class. Among skilled blue-collar workers, the FPÖ got 34% (against the SPÖ's 32%); among non-skilled blue-collar workers, the difference between the FPÖ (34%) and the SPÖ (21%) was even more significant. The FPÖ has re-established its dominant position as the party a majority of working-class voters prefer - which was clearly the case as early as 1999. The SPÖ has lost its leading position among its traditional core electorate.

What is to be done?

In many respects, the result of the 2008 election is indeed a repeat of that in 1999. The same elements - a significant decline in the two major parties, especially of the conservative ÖVP; a dramatic rise in the extreme-right vote - are there. In that sense the 1999 outcome augurs ill - for the SPÖ, preferring a coalition with the ÖVP, failed to convince the conservatives to re-enter such an alliance; while the ÖVP, reacting to the shocking result, used the FPÖ's success to form a coalition with the far-right. 

Austria's political system is a parliamentary one - which means that no government can be formed against the will of the national-council's majority. Thus, the next weeks and probably months will be used for dealing and wheeling between the parties. Two options are ruled out - the Greens don't have the numbers to build a majority with either of the two major parties; and as the SPÖ has ruled out (before and after the elections) any coalition with either the FPÖ or the BZÖ. This leaves three possible outcomes:

* a revival of the (not-so-grand) coalition between the SPÖ and the ÖVP. This is the solution the SPÖ prefers - and probably the federal president, who can play the role of a go-between

* a revival of 1999 - a coalition between the ÖVP and the far-right. This would be more complicated today than nine years ago, because both the FPÖ and the BZÖ are needed for a majority and the relationship between those two still seems to be rather hostile

* a minority cabinet of the SPÖ, indirectly backed by an at least informal agreement of tolerance between the Social Democrats and either the ÖVP and/or the two far-right parties.

The third scenario is only realistic after a period of intense bargaining between the parties which does not result in a majority coalition.

But more important than the mechanics of coalition-building is the wider dilemma for Austrian society and the Austrian polity: how it comes to terms with the latest example of its notoriety within Europe: entry in the Guinness book of records as the country with the biggest share of extreme-right votes since 1945.

Some Austrian intellectuals seem to despair. All the recipes have been tried: more civic education, more debate about Austria's involvement in the Nazi crimes, more discourse about xenophobia, anti-semitism and racism. No doubt, more of the same is better than nothing. But there is a quotation going around among Austrians reflecting intellectual resignation: Karl Kraus's dictum that Austria is hopeless but not serious.    


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