Confessions of a Political Animal

September 29, 2008

European Left Watch: Still ahead in Austria, but will the SPO get to lead?

It’s Monday, so it must be the day after a European legislative election.

Austria went to the polls yesterday and, as the Animal (and the polls…) predicted, the social-democratic SPÖ emerged retaining its position as the largest party in the Nationalrat. The SPÖ’s leader, Walter Faymann, has claimed the right to the Chancellery. However, the big story of the night was the worrying surge of the hard-right at the expense of the two mainstream parties. The combined vote shares of the FPÖ and Jörg Haider’s BZÖ amounted to 29%, well in excess of the 25.6% achieved by the centre-right ÖVP, and only marginally short of the SPÖ’s 29.7%. This success appears to have been built on the back of a virulent campaign of anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric: the FPÖ’s neo-Nazi linked leader Heinz Strache went in for some particularly choice phrases, including describing burqa-wearing women as ‘female ninjas’.

As was widely expected, the elections, which were the result of the ÖVP walking out of their deadlocked grand coalition with the SPÖ appear to have done absolutely nothing to break the deadlock in Austrian politics. With most of the votes now counted (although official results will not be confirmed until postal and absentee votes are tallied), there appear to be just three possible coalition scenarios which could reach the 92 seats required for a Nationalrat majority:

the re-installation of the SPÖ+ÖVP grand coalition(108 seats). The election was specifically held to move away from a grand coalition of the two main parties, which had proven massively dysfunctional over the past 18 months. Polls also suggest that the continuation of such a coalition would be massively unpopular with the Austrian electorate: a Gallup poll on 15th September showed that less than one in five voters favoured such an outcome. However, this may well be the only workable coalition and there is a slight possibility that the replacement of the previous SPÖ chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer by Walter Faymann may provide a more effective government.

an SPÖ+FPÖ coalition(93 seats). Whilst arithmetically possible, this is an extremely unlikely outcome, requiring as it would social democrats to enter government with the neo-Nazi linked extreme right. Senior SPÖ members have already ruled out such a possibility and any attempts by Faymann to broker such a deal would open deep divisions within the party, with a strong chance of an actual split occurring. With an SPÖ+FP coalition having a majority of just 3, any split in the senior party would render government inoperable.

an ÖVP+FPÖ+BZÖ coalition(106 seats). As the BZÖ is the result of a 2005 split from the FPÖ, a three party centre-hard right coalition would effectively be a return to the 2002 election outcome, which saw the hard right entering national government for the first time. The international opprobrium which was heaped upon Austria after the formation of the 2002 ÖVP+FPÖ coalition would be likely to be replayed, which might make the ÖVP reluctant to countenance this road. However, a bigger stumbling block would be the poisonous relations between the FPÖ and the BZÖ, who may well simply refuse to serve together. Even if they do agree to do so, this would not make for a stable coalition.

Broadly speaking, therefore, a grand coalition looks the only feasible outcome – although I’ve no doubt I could be proved badly wrong on this. The only other possibility that I can see is some form of ‘confidence and supply’ coalition, with the SPÖ and the Greens forming a formal minority government with 77 seats, with the ÖVP signing up to a protocol to support the government in votes of confidence and budget votes. As far as I know (happy to be told otherwise) such a scenario would be a new departure in Austrian politics.

The simple fact emerging from this is that no-one really knows what will happen next. With government formation in Slovenia still continuing a week after the election (which produced a similarly tied-result, albeit without the added complication of the hard-right surge), we could be in for a similarly long wait in Austria. Updates on this as, and when, it happens (see below table).

A summary of the results for parties that have parliamentary representation is below:

Party Politics Vote share Change from 2006 Seats Change from 2006
Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ) Social democrat 29.7% -5.6% 58 -10
Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP) Christian democrat 25.6% -8.7% 50 -16
Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) Hard right 18% +7% 35 +14
BZÖ – Liste Jörg Haider Hard right 11% +6.9% 21 +14
Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative Environmentalist 9.8% -1.2% 19 -2

Update 01/10: The replacement of ÖVP leader Wilhelm Molterer with the more liberal (and SPÖ-friendly) Josef Proell seems to increase the likelihood of the resumption of a grand coalition, thereby hopefully denying the hard right a return to government.


  1. […] 28 September: Austria (Nationalrat/parliamentary lower house) Final outcome unclear with Social Democrats ahead but far right surge – post here. […]

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