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The 2013 Austrian Elections: Standing Still Despite Change?

- October 1, 2013

(Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press: Freedom Party Candidate Heinz-Christian Strache votes in Sunday's election.)

(Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press: Freedom Party Candidate Heinz-Christian Strache votes in Sunday’s election.)

We are pleased to continue our series of Election Reports with the following post-election report on the Sept. 29 Austrian elections from political scientists Sylvia KritzingerMichael Lewis-Beck, and Eva Zeglovits, three of the authors of The Austrian Voter.  Their pre-election report can be found here.
The general election in Austria can probably be described best by two words that are normally mutually exclusive: stability and change. Stability, in the sense that again the two established parties, the SPÖ and ÖVP, became the two strongest parties in Austria and will most likely continue to govern in the so-called grand coalition. Change, in the sense that the electoral results of the single political parties suggest major upheavals amongst Austrian voters.
Turning first to the electoral turnout, Austria experienced an all-time low in electoral participation. While in 2008 78.8 percent of Austrians voted, in this election turnout declined to an estimated 74.2 per cent (including absentee votes). Though in comparison to many other Western European democracies this turnout rate is still comparatively high, it nevertheless indicates a change in the behavior of Austrian voters.
However, the most interesting changes can be observed in the preliminary electoral outcomes for the two government parties in comparison to the opposition parties. Though the SPÖ and ÖVP already experienced an all-time low in vote shares in 2008, they lost even more votes in the 2013 election. Both parties lost about two percent of their vote shares — SPÖ 26.9  percent (for a decline of 2.4 percentage points) and ÖVP 24 percent (for a decline of 2.0 percentage points). They can now barely hold the majority of votes between the two of them. This is an astonishing result given that these two parties held more than 90 percent of the votes between the 1960s and the early 1980s, and their coalition governments therefore used to be labeled “grand.” After this election with the two parties holding a majority of votes only by a tiny margin – 50.9 percent – the term grand seems outdated. Further, the narrow result shows that these formerly very major parties are close to losing their majority, which they have counted on for decades.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties generally showed gains, some of which were substantial. The Greens received 12.3 percent of the vote, a gain of 1.9 percent from the previous election. Overall, opinion polls suggested higher gains for the Greens, but in the end they remained rather static: neither winning nor losing remarkably. Also, Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach and his party Team Stronach were elected into parliament in their first election for the National Council, gaining 5.7 percent of the votes. However, political commentators still interpreted the result as a disappointment due to the fact that the party had claimed to be aiming for 20-30 percent of the vote and had done well earlier in the year in regional elections.
Turning to the radical-right parties, the FPÖ and BZÖ, we find divergent results. While the BZÖ failed to pass the threshold by a small margin, gaining only 3.5 percent of the votes (compared to 10.7 percent of the votes in 2008), the FPÖ  once again increased its vote share (by 3.1 percent), now receiving 20.6 percent of the votes. The substantial loss of electoral support of the BZÖ is based on several factors. Without its charismatic party leader Jörg Haider, a well-known radical-right party leader since the 1980s who died in a car accident in 2008, and with its involvement in some corruption, the party could not connect to its 2008 success. In contrast, the FPÖ and its leader Heinz-Christian Strache could continue with its former successes: The FPÖ ran a typical radical right agenda, focusing on issues such as immigration, asylum and EU-skepticism, and criticizing the established government.
The surprise of election day was the success of the NEOS, a new liberal party, that entered the parliament in their first election. In Austria, there  has hardly ever been a liberal party in parliament, thus the NEOS’ s success surprised a lot of people.  While the latest polls indicated that they might be able to enter parliament, it was nevertheless stunning that they received 4.9 percent of the vote. This is an astonishing result given that they were much less present on TV and in newspapers. Partly this lack of presence came from the policy of the public broadcasting company, which only invites candidates of parties represented in parliament to their TV debates.
To sum up, the governing parties still have an electoral majority, and one radical right party lost while the other succeeded. Another populist party, the Team Stronach, was elected to parliament. The Greens could not gain as much as they anticipated and a new liberal party, the NEOS, made it into the National Council. Most likely, the two established parties will continue their grand coalition. Hence, even though Austrian voters seem to be rather dissatisfied with the performance of the government, that same government will most likely be returned. If so, the general elections of 2013 have not really changed anything. But if their decline continues this might become the last election where the two old parties gain a majority. The political earthquake is hence yet to come.
(NB: Numbers in the text are interim results announced by the Federal Ministry of the Interior on Sept. 30. Numbers may change slightly after all absentee votes are included on Thursday.)