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Austria: What the Election Outcome Says About Populism in Europe

The 15 October general elections have returned the expected victory for Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz and his center-right People’s Party (OVP). The outcome will most likely be the formation of a right-of-center government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

As discussed before, an OVP-FPO government would focus on identity issues such as limiting immigration and keeping Turkey out of the EU. Yet Austria will neither retreat from the EU or the euro nor fundamentally reject projects such as (limited) institutional build-out in the Eurozone.

Kurz’s gains of 7.5% were impressive, even if they turned out to be slightly smaller than predicted in the polls. These gains brought the total percentage of votes for the OVP to 31.5%. The Social Democrats’ (SPO) incumbent, Chancellor Christian Kern, remained stable at 26.9% instead of losing support. As a result, the FPO – having led the polls only a few months ago – came in third with a total of 26%, beaten by both the OVP and also narrowly by the SPO. Nevertheless, the result indicates a shift to the political right, as well as an overall consolidation of the party system, including on the center-left.

The big winners were OVP and FPO; they received a clear mandate for government formation. Kurz is willing to use that mandate to form a majority with a clear-cut political profile, ending decades of nearly uninterrupted OVP-SPO cooperation in the political middle ground.

The disappearance of two right-wing splinter parties certainly benefited OVP and FPO. The nomination of the self-proclaimed modernizer Kurz explains the OVP’s ability to overtake the far-right newcomers. This was, however, only possible due to Kurz’s promise to radically break with the grand coalition.

Meanwhile, on the center-left, the Greens suffered from the breakaway of their maverick member of parliament, Peter Pilz, who correctly anticipated the overall desire for political change. Pilz overtook the Greens by an additional 0.6% in which Pilz captured 4.4% of the votes and the Greens a mere 3.8%. In addition, the Greens lost to the SPO which could hence make up for its losses to OVP and especially FPO. All in all, developments on the center-left mirrored the trend of consolidation in the wider party system.

European takeaways

The FPO’s likely inclusion into Kurz’s government should be monitored but will not be a cause for concern about an outright EU-skeptic turn. This is due to a two-way dynamic: the FPO has long begun to moderate its stance on issues such as membership in the bloc and the common currency. At the same time, previously unrepresented popular sentiments (rejection of large-scale immigration, fear of economic decline) are increasingly being picked up also by Europe’s mainstream parties, rendering programs such as the FPO’s less outlandish than before.

Vienna will become even more outspoken in defining the EU as a community of conservative values, hence rejecting projects such as Turkey’s accession. However, such projects had no chance of materializing even before the FPO’s victory, while Europe’s immigration policy had already begun to become much more restrictive. This shows that the political mainstream has started to respond to the consistent expression of popular discontent. For French plans for Eurozone build-out, this can only mean that Northwest Europe will likely continue to insist on a very gradual, limited, and intergovernmental approach.

From populism to re-politicization

As elsewhere in Europe, party system change and an increasing responsiveness to non-mainstream grievances came about amid a return of previously disenfranchised voters in Austria. In the general elections, turnout increased by some five percentage points over the previous polls in 2013. In that sense, the broader takeaway for Europe is that it might be time to move on from the debate of “populism” to discussing the implications of a broader process of “re-politicization.”

Carsten Nickel, Deputy Director of Research, October 2017