The Austrian Parliament. (Credit: MikeCphoto/Bigstock)
The Austrian Parliament. (Credit: MikeCphoto/Bigstock) (via: bit.ly)

Since the United Kingdom’s referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union, most discussions on its consequences have been focused on the EU as a whole, regarding trade and relations between states. However, when one looks further, the decision by the UK to leave the EU will also affect member states on the domestic level.

The presidency of the European Union saw an unprecedented change in 2016. Due to its decision to leave the EU, the United Kingdom decided to relinquish the Council presidency it was to hold in the second half of 2017. Thus, on 26 July 2016, the Council adopted a decision to establish a revised order in which the member states will hold the presidency of the Council until 2030, shifting the presidential terms forward by six months starting from 1 July 2017 when Estonia took control. Therefore, Austria will hold the EU presidency from July to December 2018, following Bulgaria’s term.[1]

This changed order will have some effect on Austrian internal politics, as it would have coincided with the election of the country’s National Council. The next Austrian legislative elections were to be held in autumn 2018, the end of the previous legislative period, but have been rescheduled for 15 October 2017 due to the differences between the ruling parties, SPÖ and ÖVP, as well as the resignation of the Vice Chancellor. The parties disagreed about tax reform with very different proposals on how to fund tax cuts, and without a deal the ruling ‘grand coalition’ has become less stable.

This change in the date of the legislative elections has sparked early campaigning, with politicians and parties starting to push their agenda and present it to the public even before the official start of election campaigning. The current political situation in Austria is interesting to watch after the turmoil of the presidential elections in 2016, when neither of the two main parties’ candidates got enough votes to make it to the second round. The second round of the Austrian presidential election and the fact that the repeat election was postponed were the subject of much discussion and polarisation, as one of the candidates was from a far-right party, the FPÖ, and the results of the run-off were very close. The run-off was then repeated due to irregularities brought out by one of the candidates, and then postponed for technical reasons. This has led to much discussion and ridicule of the process.

Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung was chosen as word of the year in Austria in 2016. It describes the seven months of voting, court cases, and delays in the presidential election, and roughly translates to the repeat of the postponement of the runoff of the presidential vote. The run-off had to be repeated after the candidate from the FPÖ, who had lost, challenged the result on the basis that some votes were counted too early. The Supreme Court had decided to repeat the run-off, but had to postpone it after it came to light that the election ballots sent to voters who were voting by post became unstuck after sealing due to faulty glue.

An interesting politician to watch is Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs, and leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Sebastian Kurz. Becoming Foreign Minister at 27, he is the youngest politician to hold such a position in European history. He became involved in politics early on, and in 2009 was elected Chairman of the youth branch of the ÖVP. Between 2010 and 2011 he was a member of Vienna’s City Council, and in April 2011, Kurz was appointed to the newly created position of State Secretary for Integration. He was only 24 years old. He was elected to Parliament in the 2013 general election, and was also appointed Foreign Minister that same year. In 2017 he became the leader of the ÖVP, after the resignation of the previous leader, Reinhold Mitterlehner, who was then also Minister of Science, Research and Economy.

In 2016 Sebastian Kurz started negotiations that led to the closing of the so-called ‘Balkan route’, which had some 800,000 refugees and migrants pass through in 2015 alone. This was followed by a rise in his approval ratings, which had already been higher than that of many Austrian politicians. It seems many saw Kurz as a counterbalance to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ‘open door policy’, which had led to many refugees travelling through Austria to get to Germany. However Kurz’s approach also positioned him as a politician with a softer approach to the refugee crisis than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. While some support Sebastian Kurz, others claim he is setting a dangerous precedent by taking a hard stance on the issue, similar to that of the far-right parties.

In the summer of 2017 ‘pre-election’ posters started appearing, featuring Kurz, but without reference to the ÖVP. Many people are alleging that this is more like a separate campaign, rather than that of his party. Kurz announced the creation of an independent (but backed by the ÖVP) list of political representatives under the name ‘List Sebastian Kurz – The New People’s Party’, which would be open to non-ÖVP candidates. They will now participate in the election instead of the ‘traditional’ People’s Party.

On the other side of the spectrum is Austrian Federal Chancellor Christian Kern, who is the leader of the Austrian Socialist Party, SPÖ. SPÖ and ÖVP have for many years been the two main political parties in Austria and currently have the first and second largest number of seats in the National Council. Kern took over the SPÖ in 2016, after the resignation of previous Chancellor Werner Faymann, who resigned during the Austrian presidential election. Previously, Kern had been appointed CEO of the state-owned Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) in 2010.

There are many issues that will be hot topics during the pre-election campaigning, such as pensions, healthcare, tax reform, the refugee crisis, EU politics, and many more. Politicians are starting to hand out Wahlzuckerl – election candy – both literally and metaphorically – making promises, and handing out information. Another interesting development was a June announcement by the SPÖ that they would drop a 30-year ban on coalitions with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) under certain conditions.

Politicians from other parties are starting to join in the campaigning, with the FPÖ – whose Norbert Hofer was the runner up in the presidential election – predicted to receive many votes, as it currently has the third largest number of seats in the National Council. The Green Party, who also had a change of leadership when Eva Glawischnig resigned from all her offices in May 2017, is expected to take part in campaigning along with other smaller parties and individual politicians with their own ‘lists’. This could be a record high number of parties and lists participating, with 16 parties, and many new lists of political representatives coming from the federal provinces.

The authorities are eager to have the technical side of the election run as smoothly as possible in order to avoid new ‘words of the year’.

 

[1] Austria has previously held the EU Presidency, which rotates among the member states of the EU every six months, in 1998 and 2006.

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Diana Orlova

Research Associate, DOC Research Institute, AT

Diana Orlova received her BA (Political Science and International Studies) from Yale University and a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science (European Political Economy). She has worked with the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” for over ten years, as head of the European Headquarters, which she helped set up in Vienna in 2006. Before joining the World Public Forum she worked at the International Press Institute (Vienna), as Press Freedom Advisor, and as Europe and former-USSR Programs Coordinator. Diana’s research interests include international relations, European integration, and global policies and institutions.