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2010 Austrian Presidential Election: Post-Election Report

- April 26, 2010

As part of our “continuing series of election reports”:https://themonkeycage.org/election_reports/, we once again welcome back Laurenz Ennser, a pre-doctoral researcher at the Austrian National Election Study at the University of Vienna, with this report on the now concluded 2010 Austrian presidential elections:

As widely expected, Sunday‘s “Austrian presidential election”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/world/europe/26austria.html brought an impressive victory for incumbent Heinz Fischer of the Social Democrats (SPOe), gaining 79 percent of the popular vote. With 16 percent, the Freedom Party‘s (FPOe) Barbara Rosenkranz came in second, and Rudolf Gehring of the non-parliamentary Christian Party (CPOe) received five percent and thus finished third.

The fact that three of the five parties in parliament (the conservative OeVP, the right-wing BZOe, and the Greens) did not stand a candidate had two remarkable effects:

1. Turnout dropped to a level before only seen in European Parliament elections. Even after counting in all absentee ballots, almost half of the electorate did not bother to make it to the voting booth today (I am well aware that 53 percent are not considered “low” in other contexts. By Austrian standards, however, they are).

2. Spoiled ballots are on a record high, averaging above seven percent of all cast ballots nationally.

As political scientists we should not be surprised by either outcome: The causes lie in a result which clearly was a foregone conclusion, a significant lack of competition in a lackluster campaign for an office that is of little practical relevance in everyday Austrian politics, and finally the open calls by some conservative leaders to cast spoilt ballots. From a rational choice perspective, at least half of the electorate behaved reasonably. [JT note: For an example of a theoretical argument relating turnout to the “stakes” or an election tested with empirical data from post-communist countries, see “this 2009 JOP article”:http://homepages.nyu.edu/~jat7/Pacek_PopEleches_Tucker_Turnout.pdf I co-authored with Alexander Pacek and Grigore Pop-Eleches.]

Still, the level of turnout varies considerably across the country. The graph below plots the turnout in Austria’s nine states against the SPOe vote share at the last general election in 2008. Clearly, turnout was higher in the SPOe strongholds, while many voters in the traditionally conservative regions of the west (Tyrol and Vorarlberg) did not vote today.

Austria_Graph1.jpg

An analysis of voter transitions based on aggregate precinct data showed that more than half of all conservative and right-wing voters (OeVP, FPOe, and BZOe) failed to cast a ballot (the link is here, click the “Wahlerstrome” button and then choose one of the candidates.)

Now, what are the implications of this election result?

First of all, Heinz Fischer will serve a second six-year-term which will most likely be as uncontroversial as his first one. However, some top politicians – including the president himself – have aired the idea of abolishing the possibility of a rerun for presidential incumbents, thus avoiding low turnout and abstention from the contest by major political parties. As this would mean a change of the constitution, a two-thirds majority in parliament is required.

Second, the SPOe (Fischer’s party) may experience a small bounce in the polls which recently saw it trailing a few percentage points behind its junior coalition partner, the conservative OeVP. However, the most important elections of 2010, the regional polls in Styria and Vienna,could still prove disastrous for the Social Democrats.

Third, the FPOe has “clearly lost momentum”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/25/AR2010042502440.html during the presidential campaign. While being the only serious national party to challenge the incumbent, the Freedom Party’s candidate, Barbara Rosenkranz, had a terrible campaign start when during an interview she questioned the Verbotsgesetz and even remained ambiguous when first asked about the existence of gas chambers and concentration camps. While Rosenkranz later made clear that she did not deny the holocaust and other Nazi crimes, she was forced to defend herself for the rest of the campaign. It will be interesting to see whether the FPOe manages to recover from today’s relatively poor result. Chances are that the party will learn from the strategic mistakes that were made in the past weeks and secures a much higher share of the vote in the Viennese state elections in October.

Fourth, the hitherto insignificant Christian Party of Austria (CPOe) received a remarkable share of five percent or 160,000 votes. In the state of Vorarlberg, where small Christian-conservative parties have been a regular phenomenon, one in ten voters voted for the CPOe. Whether the Christian Party’s fair showing remains a one-time success is hard to predict. Christian fundamentalists (whom the CPOe mostly represents) tend to be long-term oriented (after all, the Catholic Church is still around today). Sweden’s Christian Democrats, for instance, had been active for almost 25 years before breaking through to the national stage.

All in all, the 2010 Austrian presidential elections did not change an awful lot: the president will be the same as before, the government parties will prepare for tough budget negotiations in the fall while keeping a close eye on the regional elections, and the voters will turn out in larger numbers again once there is more at stake.