Austria – Snap elections and a possible FPÖ victory: Potential to alter the functioning of Austria’s semi-presidentialism?

The Austrian presidential elections last year was a sign of tremendous change in the country’s party system. Both of the hitherto dominant parties – Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) – failed to have their candidate elected (let alone enter the run-off), while support for the far-right FPÖ and its candidate, deputy speaker Norbert Hofer, soared. Although veteran Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the election, the threat of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in the next elections has been looming over Austrian politics ever since. After Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) resigned in the aftermath of the presidential election debacle and was replaced by his co-partisan Christian Kern, relations between coalition partners SPÖ and ÖVP were tense. Three weeks ago, the coalition effectively collapsed with the resignation of vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner (ÖVP) and the announcement of his successor, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, to call snap elections for October 2017. The outcome is unpredictable as of yet, but will provide a difficult parliamentary arithmetic in any case and may transform the way in which Austria’s semi-presidentialism functions.

To date, presidents have largely practised a “Rollenverzicht” (i.e. relinquishing of an active role in day-to-day politics) and made generally sparing use of their powers, particularly in the appointment and dismissal of Chancellors where they followed the will of parties. Nevertheless, the Austrian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in European democracies (more powerful in fact than the president of France; see also Robert Elgie’s interview here) and can theoretically dismiss governments at will. The possibility that Norbert Hofer, if victorious, would appoint FPÖ party leader Strache as Chancellor was discussed as a distinct possibility. While the FPÖ currently holds 38 of 183 seats (20.8%) in the National Council and is thus only the third-largest party after SPÖ and ÖVP, it now has a realistic chance of becoming the largest party and claiming the office of Chancellor (see figure above).

An electoral victory for the FPÖ would not only put the established parties, but also president Van der Bellen in a difficult position – domestically and internationally. Van der Bellen has not only repeatedly declared that FPÖ leader Strache would be an unsuitable choice for Chancellor but also that he would refuse to appoint a FPÖ-led government even won the most seats in the next election [1]. Furthermore, when the FPÖ participated in Austria’s federal government (albeit as junior partner in a coalition led by the ÖVP) the last time (1999 to 2002), other EU member states reacted with diplomatic “sanctions” due to the FPÖ’s openly xenophobic and revisionist positions (many of which remain part of the party – albeit less openly – to this day).

SPÖ and ÖVP have been very pragmatic in preparing for a potential coalition with the FPÖ. Starting with the failure to openly back Van der Bellen’s candidacy against Hofer in the run-off of the presidential election, neither party has excluded a coalition with the FPÖ outright. Thus, president Van der Bellen will likely assume a crucial role after the elections. Interestingly, the president has so far refused to comment on the snap elections – except for asking parties to remain civil and stating that he would expect them to formulate clear positions regarding the EU, education, labour market and human rights. Given the Austrian Chancellor once appointed does not require a vote of confidence or investiture, Van der Bellen would have the option to appoint a minority government. In that case, he may effectively become a ‘third coalition partner’ and much more strongly and openly involved in day-to-day politics that any Austrian president before. Yet even Van der Bellen chose to appoint a government with participation of the FPÖ, he could likely still refuse to nominate its candidate for Chancellor over that of a (junior) coalition partner [1]. Irrespective of the scope of the FPÖ’s participation in government, Van der Bellen would face both domestic and international pressure to provide a balance to the FPÖ.

Come October Van der Bellen will most likely not be able to rely voters to produce an ‘uncomplicated’ parliamentary arithmetic as could his predecessors. Rather the election with force him – or provide an opportunity for him (depending on one’s perspective) – to assume a more active role in Austrian politics. During his election campaign, Van der Bellen had already hinted at a slightly more activist understanding of his role. Assuming a strong FPÖ result (or victory), the question is now whether Van der Bellen will want to use the vast powers of the presidency and to what extent this will lead to a transformation of Austria’s semi-presidentialism.

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[1] Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a similar statement with regard to Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar in 2010 but remained inconsequential as the party failed to win the elections.
[2] An international precedent for this would be Polish president Lech Walesa’s nomination of PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak as prime minister of a SLD-PSL coalition in 1993, even though the SLD had won more seats.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 31 May 2017.

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 6 December 2016

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

results-of-the-austrian-presidential-election-2016-presidential-power-com

The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

Austria – Political earthquake as candidates of far-right and Greens win first round of presidential elections

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 26 April 2016

On Sunday, 24 April, Austrian were called to the polls for the first round of presidential elections. Norbert Hofer, candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), was the surprise winner with 36.4% of votes and thus 15% more than predicted by opinion polls. Hofer will now enter a run-off with Alexander Van der Bellen, a formally independent candidate supported by the Greens. Candidates of the government parties SPÖ and ÖVP which dominated Austrian federal politics since 1949 failed to make an impression on the voters and only polled a combined 22.4%, signalling a potential end to the politics of grand coalitions in Austria.

Results of the first round of presidential elections in Austria, 22 April 2016_presidential-power.com

The latest opinion polls before the election had predicted a relatively secure lead for Alexander Van der Bellen and a closer race for second place between Hofer and independent candidate Griss. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the election it was clear that Hofer had gained significantly more votes than expected and would enter the run-off while Van der Bellen and Griss would compete for second place. Although Van der Bellen eventually finished 2% ahead of Griss, her third place is still remarkable. Griss, a former president of the Austrian Supreme Court, was largely unknown to the Austrian public only a year ago and is not connected to any party (she received some indirect backing from the liberal NEOS party). Her result is also the best ever won by an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, surpassing previous record-holder Gertraud Knoll and her 1998 result of 13.6% by almost 2%. As expected, support for Andreas Khol (ÖVP) and Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ) as candidates of the governing parties remained low and both eventually received considerably less votes than predicted. After the combined vote share of SPÖ and ÖVP candidates averaged 89% 1951-2010 and never dropped below 63.4%, their combined vote share of just 22.4% is a clear signal that voters have become tired of the parties’ political dominance. The construction entrepreneur and Viennese socialite Richard Lugner (independent), whose campaign was widely ridiculed (or least not taken seriously), only received 2.3% of the vote – 7.6% less than in his first candidacy in 1998.

votes for candidates by voters' party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections

Source: Austrian Press Agency

A look at voters’ party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections shows the reasons for the weakness of candidates of established parties and the success of others. Both Khol and Hundstorfer were not able to mobilise a significant amount of voters beyond their core electorate and many ÖVP and SPÖ voters instead turned to other candidates. Hofer’s votes, too, mainly relied on the FPÖ electorate; however, he was also able to get votes from a number of other parties. A similar picture emerges for Van der Bellen – although 46% of his votes came from voters who already voted Green in 2013, he otherwise received support from voters of almost all other parties. The distribution of 2013 preferences among the voters of Irmgard Griss underscores her appeal across the political spectrum (despite generally centre-conservative policy positions). Although votes for Lugner also came from voters of a variety of 2013 preferences, he seems to have gathered the non-constructive (because inconsequential) protest vote.

All three front-runners tried hard in their campaigns to present themselves as anti-establishment candidates. For Griss, the success of this strategy is hardly surprising as she lacks a party affiliation and clearly differed from candidates in her rhetoric. It is much more surprising that Hofer, a prominent representative of the FPÖ, was able to make the same strategy work for him. A post-election survey showed that his youth (with just 45 years he is the youngest candidate) played in his favour. Furthermore, the ostracization of his party on the federal (and international) level aided his success. Van der Bellen, too, is a veteran politician and very much part of the political establishment, yet due to the marginal position of the Greens (they have not been part of any municipal, state or federal government so far) this seems to have mattered less for his voters. Van der Bellen also managed to mobilise the greatest absolute number of previous non-voters – 84,000 voters who did not vote in 2013 came out to vote for him while Hofer and Griss only mobilised 49,000 and 44,000 respectively.

After the announcement of results, all parties and candidates who failed to advance to the second round (except Griss who is still consulting with her team) declined to make a voting recommendation for the run-off. SPÖ and ÖVP, clearly shaken by the miserable performance of its candidates, thereby appears to try and keep their options open for a (further) decline in support at the next parliamentary elections in 2018, the strengthening of the FPÖ and the resulting necessity for forming different coalition. Although the possibility of early elections was mentioned regularly during the election night, this seems generally unlikely – a major reshuffle in the cabinet and at the helm of both parties on the other hand will likely take place soon. Neither Hofer nor Van der Bellen can be sure to win the run-off and need to continue campaigning hard.

Last, both candidates promise different ways of how they will behave in office (for a slightly different assessment, see here). Although both will be in cohabitation with the SPÖ-ÖVP government, Hofer is more likely to a more active president and use the formally considerable powers of the office (which includes the right to dismiss the government at will). Particularly in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections, Hofer could try to highlight perceived failings of the coalition parties and openly campaign for his party  – something office-holders have so far refrained from doing. Although analysts highlighted last night that in the past Austrian voters were reluctant to vote for either SPÖ or ÖVP when they already nominated the president (implying a reversed tailcoat effect), the days when voters could make such strategic decisions are now over – electoral fragmentation has risen steadily over the last decade and will most likely continue to do so in 2018. In contrast to Hofer, Van der Bellen is much less likely to be active. First, the electoral potential of the Green party is limited (particularly in rural Austria) and seems to have reached a natural ceiling in the last elections when it gained 12.42%. Second, Van der Bellen is clearly opposed to a strengthening of the FPÖ. While he might decline to swear in a government after the elections that includes the far-right, he would need to be very careful not to lose too much of the ‘independent image’ created during this campaign and become the target of FPÖ’s anti-establishment campaign.