Electoral Change in Times of Post-Democracy

As this text is published, coalition talks between the ÖVP and FPÖ will still be ongoing. However, nobody doubts that they will find a compromise.

It has not been decided whether the ÖVP will leave the position of the foreign minister to the FPÖ (the party is going to appoint a declared German-nationalist for this role) or the important position of the interior minister. In the latter case, party chairman H.C. Strache would take over the management of the country’s police authority and the Austrian integration policy. However, the ministers must be appointed by Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen who has publicly expressed his concerns.

The final result of the 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections is as follows (changes compared with 2013):

  • SPÖ: 26.9% (+ 0.1)
  • ÖVP: 31.5% (+ 7.5)
  • FPÖ: 26% (+ 5.5)
  • Grüne: 3.8% (- 8.6)
  • Neos: 6.3% (+ 0.3)
  • Liste Pilz: 4.4% (put forward his candidacy for the first time)
  • KPÖ+: 0.8% (- 0.2)

Results of right-wing parties in 2013 which have not put forward their candidacies this year:

  • BZÖ: 3.5%
  • FRANK: 5.7%

The presentable result of the Social Democrats hides the actual dimension of the shift towards the right that we are experiencing. Since Bruno Kreisky’s election victory 47 years ago, for 41 years the Federal Chancellor has been a candidate of the SPÖ. The Greens, who have been represented in parliament for 31 years, failed to surpass the 4% threshold. The FPÖ, which fell into disdain for its participation in government between 2000 and 2006, will now return to the government.

Austria presents itself as a country divided into cities and the countryside. The ÖVP and the FPÖ claim more than 113 out of the 183 seats in parliament for themselves. This clear majority is due to their large popularity in what the Viennese arrogantly call “the province” – in all major cities such as Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck the two parties remain below 50% of the vote. In these cities, the SPÖ managed to maintain its popularity at the cost of the Greens, who have lost their 24 seats in parliament. Eight out of these seats have now been taken on by the Liste Pilz, which was founded by a break-away group of the Greens.

Overall, no significant shift between the left and the right has been noted. It should be mentioned that more than two thirds of the ÖVP and FPÖ’s gains are the result of two populist parties not putting forward their candidacies compared with 2013 when they reached 9.5% of the vote together.

So, why are we still talking about a shift to the right? It is the political discourse and the party spectrum as a whole which have performed a shift to the right. First of all, because neither the ÖVP nor the SPÖ have excluded the possibility of forming a coalition with the FPÖ. Secondly, because all parties – apart from the Greens and KPÖ Plus – have expressed themselves in favour of a restrictive and repressive refugee and Islam policy. Qualitative studies confirm that in a political climate that has shifted towards the right, a percentage of Green voters abstained from voting for them this time around. This is because they no longer wanted to support the party’s feminism, minority and refugee policies, which are essentially based on solidarity.1

Six months after a coalition of voters, which ranged from the conservative centre to the Communist Party, voted for the (formally Green) candidate Alexander Van der Bellen to be their Federal President with 54%, Sebastian Kurz – dubbed the “acceptable face of right-wing populism”2 – managed to gain a majority of ÖVP and FPÖ in parliament.

This could be the prelude to a far-reaching reconstruction of the political system of the Second Austrian Republic, which the contemporary historian Gerhard Botz very accurately calls an “illiberal-neoliberal turning point”3.

FPÖ: Nasty and German-Nationalist

It is well-known that an influential group of the ÖVP has been working towards a coalition with the FPÖ; nor is it a secret that a parliamentary majority could have been activated at any time. Up until now, this has been impeded by the fact that there was no majority in the population for this coalition. This “mistake” has finally been corrected. From this perspective, the election on 15 October can be interpreted mainly as a successful post-democratic operation.

Of all Europe’s right-wing radical, populist parties, the FPÖ is among the nastiest. Due to its racism and anti-Islamism, the party is at times considered a nationalist party. But this is only true in a very specific sense: It differs from other nationalists in that its nationalism does not refer to its own nation, Austria. The FPÖ is a German-national party in the sense that, according to its current party programme, it regards those Austrians whose mother tongue is German to be a part of the German nation.4

The party shares this view with the influential subculture of German fraternal societies (Burschenschaften), traditional cultural associations, and new right-wing periodicals, which in turn constitute the sounding boards of right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi agitation in Austria. They are close neighbours.

This is not as eccentric as it would appear. The FPÖ is in fact a party that is traditionally anchored in Austria’s party system.5 Its German-nationalism represents a sector of the Austrian elites and, moreover, the growing influence of German capital in the country’s economy and culture.6

Both its relation to National Socialism and to German nationalism pits the FPÖ in opposition to the Constitution of the Second Austrian Republic and to Europe’s post-war order, including the EU. In the scenario of a further aggravation of the EU’s crisis and increased German great-power ambitions, this could have a very unpleasant European relevance.

The above is what can briefly be said of the FPÖ’s “hidden agenda” and the “unspoken common knowledge”, which holds its hard core together and links its surrounding intellectual and cultural milieu.

Its electoral successes, however, must be explained by something else: namely, its successful mutation into a right-wing radical party of the new kind, which combines an authoritarian view of society, ethnic nationalism, and a populist political style.7 It shares this capacity to moult and yet remain the same with the other right-wing radical parties (among them the Front National, Lega Nord, the PVV, and Vlaams Belang), with which it is federated in a common group in the European Parliament.8

The composition of the FPÖ’s electorate exhibits the image that is well-known from studies of similar parties: A significant part of FPÖ voters consist of men, workers with lower-level education (according to their employment status) outside the urban centres. It consists not so much of the declassed strata; rather, it involves people who see themselves as part of the middle strata, and who feel threatened by downward social mobility and abandoned by the established political parties. And they are right in this, because their social situation has considerably worsened over the last decade. A declining wage share has led to a rapid increase in social inequality. The unemployment rate rose from 5% to 9% at the height of the financial crisis, with the average pension income expectation sinking by approximately 25%.

But it would be wrong to interpret the growth of the populist right as a “class vote” – however misguided; no valid conclusions on the actual class composition of the electorate can be derived from the published data. The vote shares are not broken down by income levels or by categories such as “entrepreneurs”, “high-ranking staff”, or “owners of assets”. The support the FPÖ gets from the top ten thousand is among the country’s best kept secrets, whose veil is occasionally, and usually accidentally, lifted. For example, the conservative Viennese daily Die Presse went so far as to report in an article last year – with the significant title “Höret die Signale” (Hear the Signals) – the growing support of the FPÖ by members of the exclusive Association of Austrian Industrialists.9

The Future of Social Democracy is Questionable

The growing populist alienation between the institutions of liberal democracy – which have abandoned people to the cold social indifference of the market – and the population, which has retaliated by turning its back on liberal democracy, is the consequence of the above-mentioned deformation of Austrian Democracy.

The present party system of the Second Austrian Republic appears to be headed towards its death. With the adoption of a populist political style by Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP, the party seems to have found a solution to its survival in an unstable political landscape. However, the future of the Austrian Social Democrats, despite all their rich tradition, is now very questionable.

The fact that they maintained their share of the vote at the cost of the Greens has a bitter connotation which will soon manifest itself in Vienna. In January, the chairman of the powerful Viennese party section will hand over his office to his successor. It was he, however, who repeatedly took a stance despite all resistance, also within the Viennese SPÖ, against any convergence with the FPÖ. His resignation and the decline of its Green coalition partner in the city’s government will fuel the dispute about the party’s future direction. ÖVP, FPÖ, the tabloid press and private TV channels are already preparing for the decisive “Battle of Vienna”.

KPÖ Plus, the election alliance consisting of Communists, the Green Party’s youth organisation and independent subjects, has not succeeded in reaching its goal – despite its remarkably active election campaign and its unseen acceptance by the public for a party in close affiliation with the KPÖ. This is mainly due to the fact that among left voters there was a widespread fear of an imminent ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. However, there seems to be the shared conviction to continue working towards a new pluralist left.

The deficit of the Austrian party system mentioned by KPÖ Plus – the lack of an alternative to the left of social democracy and the Greens – still exists. The deep crisis in which the Greens find themselves and the SPÖ’s foreseeable dispute about its future direction should encourage people to consider a restructuring process of the Austrian left on a larger scale, and to not be afraid to think big.


1. SORA analyses, “Frau sein ist kein Programm! Mann sein aber schon”, MALMOE on the web: www.malmoe.org/artikel/regieren/3326

2. Hans Rauscher, “Haben wir uns in Christian Kern getäuscht?”, Der Standard, 16 August 2017.

3. Gerhard Botz, “Es gibt eine neoliberale-illiberale Wende”, Der Standard, 20 October 2017.

4. The exact wording in the party’s programme is: “Sprache, Geschichte und Kultur Österreichs sind deutsch. Die überwiegende Mehrheit der Österreicher ist Teil der deutschen Volks-, Sprach- und Kulturgemeinschaft.”, (“The language, history and culture of Austria are German. The large majority of Austrians are part of the German ethnic, linguistic and cultural community.” In: Parteiprogramm der Freiheitlichen Partei (FPÖ)Concluded at the party congress on 18 June 2011 in Graz.

5. Pelinka, Anton: “Die FPÖ im internationalen Vergleich”, conflict & communication online, 1/1 2002, www.cco.regener-online.de/2002_1/pdf_2002_1/pelinka.pdf.

6. “Internationalisierung bei den Universitätsmitarbeitern sei in sehr vielen Fällen ‚Germanisierung‘, stellten Forscher der Universitätenkonferenz (Uniko) unlängst fest. 27,4 % Prozent der in Österreich lehrenden Universitätsprofessoren kommen laut einer aktuellen Auswertung des Wissenschaftsressorts aus Deutschland. An der Universität Wien sind es beinahe 40%”. (“Internationalisation of university staff in very many cases equals ‘Germanisation’, as researchers at the university conference noted recently. A current study of the German academic department suggests that 27.4% of university professors teaching in Austria are originally from Germany. At the University of Vienna, their percentage amounts to almost 40%.” See: “Jeder vierte Professor ist Deutscher”, Die Presse, 14 February 2017.

7. See: Cas Mudde, “The Far Right and the European Elections”, Current History Magazine 03/2014.

8. See https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europa_der_Nationen_und_der_Freiheit#Mitglieder.

9. See Die Presse, 2 May 2016, http://diepresse.com/home/wirtschaft/kolumnen/kordiconomy/4978742/%20Hort-die-Signale-der-FPO?%2520_vl_backlink=/home/index.do.