Austria goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Nationalrat (National Council), almost two years to the day after it last did so. The 2006 elections produced electoral stalemate, with both main parties losing significant numbers of votes, but leaving the centre-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ) with a very narrow plurality of seats, regaining the position it had historically held until 2002. The results thankfully prevented a continuation of the coalition between the centre-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP) and the neo-fascist Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ) led by Jörg Haider. The inclusion of the far-right in government had led to a degree of international isolation, with diplomatic sanctions imposed against the country by the EU and Israel.
The only workable solution after the 2006 elections involved a return to the traditional SPÖ-ÖVP grand coalition, which had been a regular occurrence in post-war Austria. The government was led by SPÖ Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer. On this occasion, however, the grand coalition has proved to be anything but a success. Within the SPÖ there was widespread dissatisfaction with the outcome of the coalition negotiations, which had led to few of the SPÖ’s manifesto pledges being carried through, despite their being the senior coalition partner. Faced with growing unpopularity, the SPÖ designated infrastructure minister Werner Faymann as its new leader. Government disagreements over privatisation, health care and taxes weakened the coalition. Eventually, in July this year a proposal by Gusenbauer and Faymann to require referenda on major EU issues led to the ÖVP walking out of the coalition, precipitating early elections.
At the time, this looked like a smart move by the ÖVP, who held a 5 or 6 point poll lead over the SPÖ. With Austria’s other hard-right party, Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) – of which Haider was once leader and the ÖVP’s original coalition partner in 2002 – also riding high in the polls, a return to the controversial right-hard right coalition looked likely. But in recent weeks it is beginning to look like the ÖVP’s gamble has massively backfired. With new SPÖ leader Faymann proving much more adept than his predecessor and adopting a much more pro-active and voter-friendly tone than the ÖVP on key issues such as rising prices and unemployment, he has, since late August, turned his party’s poll deficit into a 2 or 3 point lead. As well as the FPÖ, the Greens have continued to poll well, with a combined vote for the two main parties now likely to be well below 60%.
Assuming the polls are accurate, the new arithmetic means that the options for government formation become very limited. In fact, they may well boil down to just one choice – an SPÖ led grand coalition. You know, like the one that the ÖVP walked out of because of political stalemate and irreconcilable differences? The only other even vaguely conceivable possibility would be a coalition of the ÖVP with both the neo-fascist parties – and anyone who has ever looked at the hatred between parties within either political extreme will know just how likely that is.
So will the ÖVP be left with egg on their faces, crawling back to take up their position as junior coalition partner once again? It seems very likely – and I wouldn’t want to be in party leader Wilhelm Molterer’s shoes when it happens.
More on this as it happens.