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Austrians vote Sunday — with a major corruption scandal in the background

They’re voting for parliament for the second time in just two years.

- September 26, 2019

This Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, Austrians will vote to elect members of their main chamber of parliament, the Nationalrat, for the second time in only two years. The snap election follows the breakdown of a government coalition between now-former chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s center-right ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and the radical right FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria). Since June, Austria has been run by an interim government, which includes the first female chancellor in the country’s history.

The premature end of Kurz’s right-wing government resulted from a major corruption scandal known as “Ibizagate,” involving the FPÖ. This wasn’t the first time that the ÖVP’s choice to govern with the FPÖ resulted in controversies over corruption. Nevertheless, both parties are likely to keep a majority after Sunday’s vote. The renewal of their coalition, however, is not certain. Here’s what you need to know about this election.

‘Ibizagate’ and other scandals

In May, Austria’s then-vice chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to step down. German newspapers published covert video footage from 2017 when the FPÖ was still in opposition, showing Strache and another now-former FPÖ figure appearing to solicit illicit donations from the niece of a Russian oligarch, asking her to take over Austria’s biggest tabloid and help tilt the election toward FPÖ, in exchange for lucrative government contracts later.

But the purported niece was an actress. The conversation was held in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza equipped with hidden cameras. After the video was published, Kurz was forced to call for a snap election.

Ibizagate is the most serious political scandal in recent Austrian history. Still, the FPÖ wasn’t the only party accused of serious political misconduct. Kurz’s ÖVP has been criticized for hidden donations of wealthy individuals and for covering up the true costs of the party’s electoral campaigns, ignoring legal spending caps in Austria.

The former government parties have a stable majority in the polls

And yet Austria’s right-wing parties aren’t too worried about election day. The ÖVP is polling at 34 percent — which is higher than its 31.5 percent final showing in the 2017 election. That’s likely because the ÖVP attracted dissatisfied FPÖ voters, especially after Ibizagate. Despite a less than optimal campaign, disrupted by these scandals and other blunders, the ÖVP should gain more seats — although there might be smaller gains than initially expected.

The FPÖ is polling at 20 percent, significantly below its 2017 showing of 26 percent. But that decline is relatively small given Ibizagate. In 2002, FPÖ’s disastrous government performance, including lack of policy gains and political infighting, resulted in it losing more than half its votes. But this time, the FPÖ was more effective in managing the crisis. That included quickly replacing Strache with Norbert Hofer — a politician who almost won the 2016 Austrian presidential election. Moreover, the FPÖ has tried to reframe Ibizagate, demanding to know who was behind the video entrapment scheme rather than focusing on Strache’s statements.

Opponents remain in the minority

The 2017 election was dominated by debates on immigration and integration. That’s not as true this time, with debates on political corruption and the environment, especially global warming, as well. But no party has been able to set the agenda with its specific policy suggestions.

That is one reason the center-left SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) is polling at only 22 percent, a drop from its 2017 showing of 26.9 percent. A year ago, former chancellor and SPÖ party head Christian Kern left the legislature — he now serves on the Russian state railways’ board of directors, among others. New leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner could not solve a key problem of the party, which for too long focused on pointing out the dark sides of the right-wing government and failed to make a case for its own agenda. Only 17 percent of Austrians believe the party would be able to bring new ideas into Austrian politics.

The SPÖ will lose voters to the Greens, now polling at 12 percent — which suggests they will return to the Austrian Nationalrat. Despite having been, until then, among the most successful Green parties worldwide, in 2017 the Austrian Greens fell below the 4 percent threshold for gaining seats in the legislature. That’s true even though a former Green leader had managed to win the (relatively unimportant) Austrian presidency less than a year before. But with 26 percent of Austrians referring to climate change as a central concern this year, the Greens will become the first party ever to return to the Austrian Nationalrat after being voted out of it. At the same time, the party of left-green renegade Peter Pilz is likely to lose all its seats — in 2017, he surprisingly managed to enter parliament, offering more restrictive stances on immigration and integration.

The liberal NEOS (New Austria and Liberal Forum) has been polling at 8 percent, which means it probably will enter parliament for the third time in a row, despite the voluntary resignation of its charismatic leader last year and the traditional weakness of liberal parties in Austria.

What comes next?

Two years ago, one could safely predict the Austrian elections would deliver a right-wing government. The “refugee crisis” dominated the news and public discussion, and ÖVP politicians willingly sabotaged their then-coalition partner SPÖ. But this time, it’s harder to guess which parties will form a government.

Even after the Ibizagate video appeared, Kurz reportedly considered continuing the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, although with Hofer instead of Strache serving as the FPÖ’s new vice chancellor. But key ÖVP figures asked FPÖ to give up the Interior Ministry to ÖVP. FPÖ refused. Still, the ÖVP and the FPÖ are ideologically close — and may renew their partnership.

But the ÖVP has alternatives. Austria has often been led by “grand coalitions” between the SPÖ and the ÖVP, although this would be the first one led by the ÖVP since the 1960s. Or the ÖVP could form a coalition with the Greens — and with NEOS, if necessary. The fact that Kurz will have many options will give the ÖVP the upper hand in any coalition negotiations. Potential partners may have a tough time satisfying their voters.

Whatever happens, Austria’s experience shows that “populist” government parties can encounter unexpected events that suddenly change their fortunes. At the same time, the effects of scandals on their public support are sometimes overrated. Opponents still may struggle to seize the advantage and take power.

Manès Weisskircher (@ManesWeissk) is a researcher at TU Dresden (MIDEM — Mercator Forum Migration and Democracy).