Austria: Heading towards ‘Illiberal Democracy’

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”– managed to gain a majority of ÖVP and FPÖ in parliament.

By Walter Baier (Transform)

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”.

Nevertheless, it is notable that two-thirds of the ÖVP’s and FPÖ’s vote increase came from two right-wing populist parties that did not stand for election this time. The movement of votes between left and right therefore involves no more than 3.5%. The generally verified rightward shift consists less in a dramatic change of voter behaviour than in a change in the institutional relation of forces. The SPÖ lost the office of head of government that it had held for 41 years in the 47 years since Bruno Kreisky’s electoral victory; the Greens who were represented in Parliament for 31 years have lost their presence there, and the ÖVP and FPÖ with 53% of votes occupy 62% of parliamentary seats, which brings them almost to the two-thirds level needed to enact changes to the Constitution.

SPÖ (Social democrats) : 26.9% (+0.1)
ÖVP (Conservatives): 31.5% (+ 7.5)
FPÖ (Radical Right): 26% (+ 5.5)
Die Grünen (Greens) : 3.8% (- 8.6)
NEOS (Neoliberals) : 6.3% (+0.3%)
PILZ (Secession from the Greens) : 4.4% (first electoral
KPÖ Plus (Communists and Young Greens) : 0.8% (-0.2)
BZÖ (Right Populists) : n/a (3.5%)
TS (Right Populists) : n/a (5.7%)

That the SPÖ could nevertheless retain its vote share is explained by the 12% increase (156.000) coming from Green voters compensating for the 11% loss (155.000) to the FPÖ. To the extent that the SPÖ has shown little capacity to ward off the right, it has all the more effectively damaged the left.
FPÖ: Nasty, anti-Semitic, racist — and German-Nationalist

Of all Europe’s right-wing radical, populist parties, the FPÖ is among the nastiest. Due to its racism, antisemitism 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.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. Its German-nationalism in fact represents a sector of the Austrian elites and, moreover, the growing influence of German capital in the country’s economy and culture.

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.

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%.

Where does the ‘radical Left’ stand?
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.