The real winner of Austria's election: Far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). (Credit: Gregor Tatschl/Flickr)
The real winner of Austria's election: Far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). (Credit: Gregor Tatschl/Flickr)

The 26th Austrian elections took place with interesting, though expected results. As predicted, the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) received the largest number of votes, winning 62 of the 183 seats, followed by the Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ) with 52 seats, and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) with 51 seats.

The pro-EU NEOS party earned 10 seats and the leftist List Pilz took 8, getting into parliament with just over 4% of the votes each. In a surprising turn of events, the Green party did not meet the 4% threshold and thus did not receive any mandates for the first time since they entered parliament 31 years ago. The SPÖ received only 1 mandate more than the FPÖ, which has since the last election gained 5.5% of the votes.

The legislative elections were to be held in autumn 2018, the end of the previous legislative period but had been rescheduled for 15 October 2017 due to the differences between the ruling parties, the SPÖ and ÖVP, as well as the resignation of the ÖVP vice chancellor.

It was suspected that due to the breakup of the grand coalition, if the ÖVP were to receive the majority of the votes they would try to have a coalition with the far right FPÖ rather than another coalition with the SPÖ. On 20 October, after the election and after the final ballots had been counted, Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen formally invited Sebastian Kurz, leader of the ÖVP, to form a government. Kurz then held meetings with other parties and then began coalition talks with FPÖ chief Heinz-Christian Strache.

In 2016, Sebastian Kurz started negotiations which led to the closing of the so-called Balkan route. This was followed by a rise in his approval ratings, which had already been higher than that of many politicians. Currently serving as foreign minister and leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), he is in a position to become one of Europe’s youngest heads of government. This summer, when the campaigning started, Kurz announced the creation of an independent (but backed by the ÖVP) list for the elections under the name List Sebastian Kurz – The new People’s Party, which was to be a newly reformed party, and will have the largest number of young mandate holders in parliament, with the youngest just 22 years old.

Even though he was part of the present government, Sebastian Kurz also presented himself as an engine of change for voters disenchanted with the political status quo. It is said that the ÖVP has recovered much of its appeal due to Kurz, who amid growing strains within the governing Social Democratic – People’s Party coalition, moved his centre-right party further to the right. During the election campaign, politicians from the FPÖ claimed that Kurz was using many of their slogans and was fully supporting FPÖ plans such as limiting migration. His shift to a more populist view on immigration, refugees, and the European Union (EU) may have been decisive in winning the election, and it reflects a broader trend in the region.

The results of the election suggest that a harder line on immigration resonated with voters more strongly than calls for social equality from the SPÖ and other parties. The FPÖ, like other populist parties in the EU, has seen its support rise on the back of concerns about immigration and terrorism, particularly in light of the events of recent years. The refugee movement in 2015 fuelled fear and insecurity, started by the economic crisis in 2008, and the terrorist attacks in Europe reinforced populist themes and made people particularly vulnerable to simple answers, often associated with anti-liberal and racist discourse.

Furthermore, the SPÖ was also hurt by allegations of dirty campaigning when it came out that Facebook pages crudely mocking Sebastian Kurz suggested that the young foreign minister is anti-Semitic were created by Israeli adviser Tal Silberstein, while he was under contract to the party.

After the election, Kurz was quick to point out that he intends to lead a pro-European government. The FPÖ is known for its Eurosceptic stance, but even they toned down their anti-EU rhetoric before the election. Its stance on migration did not change, however, and it openly targets refugees and warns of Austria’s “Islamisation”.

The ÖVP’s slogan is Migration kontrollieren. Sicherheit garantieren. – control migration, and guarantee security. The message is that migration must be controlled and rules enforced, as a lack of it would endanger the stability of the state. It is clear that the ÖVP is trying to avoid the inflammatory rhetoric of the FPÖ.

The last time the FPÖ was in government was from 2000 to 2005 (after that until 2007 a part of former FPÖ were in as a new party called Bündnis Zukunft Österreich), when after the legislative elections in 1999, the ÖVP went into a coalition with the Freedom Party. Then-President Thomas Klestil only grudgingly swore in the cabinet of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. But did not accept two politicians as ministers during the formation of the new cabinet.

The current President, Alexander Van der Bellen, who must swear in the new government, said he “puts great value on pro-European government”. And while Austrians do not expect a repeat of the EU sanctions imposed on Austria because of the FPÖ’s participation, critics of the party in and outside Austria have expressed alarm at any government role for it.

Another interesting change was the fact that the Green party, who had previously had 24 seats with 12.4% of the votes, this year managed only 3.8% and missed entering parliament.

Critics said that the party had become “too militant” and had scared off voters.

Some had left when the Young Greens broke away in early 2017, to vote for former Green party leader Peter Pilz and his new Liste Pilz. Pilz was the leader of the Greens and a long time member, but left the party in summer of 2017 and formed his List in July. However, a large part of former Green voters went to the SPÖ believing that only a strong SPÖ will hinder a “black-blue” government formed by ÖVP and FPÖ. These “borrowed votes” compensated for the losses of the SPÖ to other parties and to non-voters.

Currently, negotiation teams have been established by the ÖVP and FPÖ, to work on a coalition agreement. Sebastian Kurz plans to have a new government in place by Christmas. The composition of the future National Council has been fixed and quite different compared to previous ones. 85 MPs are new, but in the ÖVP they make up the majority.

The proportion of women will rise to just under 1/3rd at the beginning of the next legislative period. Overall, 60 of the 183 women’s seats are filled, which corresponds to a rate of 32.8%, a slight increase from previous 31%.

All the parties were able to increase the numbers of women mandate holders, especially the SPÖ, with 44%. The ÖVP has some of the youngest members, the youngest of which will only turn 23 in December. It is noticeable that all political groups have MPs under 30.