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2010 Austrian Presidential Election Preview

- February 26, 2010

As part of our “continuing series of election reports”:https://themonkeycage.org/election_reports/, we are pleased to offer a pre-election preview of the Austrian Presidential elections from Laurenz Ennser, a pre-doctoral researcher at the Austrian National Election Study at the University of Vienna:

*Austria 2010 Have: Election. Need: Competition.*

On April 25, Austria will hold presidential elections. I’ll start here with a few facts about the somewhat peculiar role of the president in the Austrian political system and then go on to talk about the 2010 election campaign and, most importantly in my view, its implications for the working of the current grand coalition government between Social Democrats (SPO) and Christian Democrats (OVP).

Despite Austria being a parliamentary system of government, the head of state is elected by popular vote, a provision adopted into the constitution in 1929 as a compromise struck between the Social Democrats who advocated a strong parliament and the Christian Democrats who were more sceptical of parliamentary rule (and eventually abolished it in 1933). It is candidates from these two parties, or more precisely, their post-war successors, that have dominated the presidential office ever since.

_De jure_, the president is a powerful figure in the political system of Austria. He appoints the federal chancellor and his cabinet ministers and has the powers to dismiss them. He even has the right to dissolve the lower house of parliament (though only on request of the cabinet). However, these powers of dismissal and dissolution have hitherto never been used by any federal president. Therefore, the de facto role of the president in Austrian politics is rather limited. After parliamentary elections, the president typically selects a government formateur to start cabinet bargaining. It is mostly in this stage of the political process that the president can and does exercise some authority.

The current president, Heinz Fischer of the Social Democrats (SPO), has been in office since 2004 and seeks to renew his term in April. Two consecutive six-year-terms are allowed. The federal president typically enjoys high popularity amongst voters which is why incumbents seeking a second term have always been successful. In all likelihood, we are not going to see an exception to this rule in 2010. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the second major party, the christian-conservative OVP, recently announced that they will not field a candidate.

So why care about an election that (1) is of little immediate relevance and (2) seems decided long before election day?

There are a number of reasons:

1. Although contested by individuals, Austrian presidential elections closely follow the patterns of partisan alignment. The figure below plots the percentage of votes obtained by SPO-candidate Fischer in 2004 against the SPOs share of votes in 2380 Austrian municipalities. The correlation coefficient is .79. Given this close correspondence, the outcome of the elections clearly bears implications for party competition and strategy on the national stage. It is therefore all the more peculiar that three out of five parliamentary parties (the OVP, the BZO, and the Greens) have decided not to compete for the position of head of state.

Figure1.jpg

2. It has long been foreseeable for the OVP that the chances of beating Social Democrat Heinz Fischer are slim. The only person deemed a possibly serious competitor was Erwin Pršll, OVP state governor of Lower Austria. However, as it happens, Erwin Pršllos nephew Josef Pršll is the current vice-chancellor and federal party chairman. However, having your uncle sit in the president’s office when you would like to become the next federal chancellor might not be such a good idea (although the example of Poland shows that even twin brothers can hold the two highest offices in one country at the same time). Facing this dilemma the OVP chose for the first time since 1945 to abstain from standing or actively supporting a candidate in the presidential election. With the Greens and (most likely) the right-wing BZO also refraining from entering the contest, the race is narrowing down remarkably.

3. This opens up electoral chances for the Freedom Party (FPO) that has promised to provide voters with an alternative to the incumbent on the ballot. Most likely, the FPO’s candidate is going to be Barbara Rosenkranz, currently a state minister. A mother of ten, Rosenkranz not only comes from the ideological core of the FPO but might also be an attractive candidate for conservative OVP voters not willing to support the social democratic incumbent. It seems safe to say that the FPO’s candidacy in the presidential election is to a fair extent aimed at winning over OVP voters. Past candidacies in presidential elections have earned the Freedom Party up to 17 % of the vote. With the OVP not on the ballot, a result in the high twenties seems quite possible for the FPO, although no serious polls have yet been published.

4. Let’s turn to some of the wider implications of the election for Austrian national politics: The presidential election is one of four important elections in 2010 that could turn the tide for the Social Democrats who have been hurt badly not only in the polls but especially in the regional and European elections in 2009. If incumbent Heinz Fischer draws a share of support substantively above 50 % (which is likely) and the three incumbent state governors of Burgenland, Styria, and Vienna manage to hold on to their posts (which is more than likely in two cases but uncertain in the case of Styria), the Social Democrats may well gain momentum on the federal level and reverse the negative trend they experienced throughout 2009.

5. The VPO’s decisions to abstain from contesting the 2010 presidential elections has to be seen in the light of a peculiar detail of Austrian post-war politics. Austrian voters like to balance the power between the president and the federal chancellor. As the figure below shows, the is a pattern of what the French would call “cohabitation” between SPO (red) and OVP (black). To be sure, the correlation is far from perfect, yet the argument of not having the same party hold the head of state and the head of government has continuously resonated among voters.

FIgure2.jpg

6. Given the low competition and the pre-determined result, the election campaign is going to be more of a test of mobilization capacities for the SPO and FPO. The other parties, especially the OVP, will most likely attempt to de-emphasize the significance of the event. It should be noted here that, contrary to parliamentary elections, there is no reimbursement of campaign expenses for parties after presidential elections. Even though Austrian parties are arguably the wealthiest in the democratic world, the weight of this argument should not be underestimated.

For more, I’ll be back on election night with a discussion of the results.