April 25, 2016
The death of the Grand Coalition
The first round of Austria's presidential elections is a peek into the future of grand coalitions in Europe. If the two largest parties go into a Grand Coalition, they face annihilation as happened in Austria yesterday. With 10.9% and 11.1% respectively, the SPÖ and ÖVP candidates were relegated into fourth and fifth place. The victor was Norbert Hofer from the ultra-right FPÖ, who managed to get 35.3% in the first round. The Green candidate and former party chairman, Alexander van der Bellen, came second with 21.3%, narrowly ahead of a third candidate, a former president of Austria's constitutional court. The run-off between the two leading candidates is schedule for May 22.
The role of Austrian president is normally ceremonial but, unlike the German president, the Austrian head of state has important powers immediately after elections. The president can refuse to nominate a chancellor and force new elections. One of the issues during the campaign had been whether the president would refuse to nominate FPÖ leader Hans-Christian Strache if he were to win the next general election in 2018.
We noted that in Germany, too, support for the grand coalition is fast falling below the 50% mark. Germany is not quite where Austria is today. Austria has had a grand coalition since 1987, except during the years 2000-2007 when Wolfgang Schuessel governed in a coalition with the FPÖ. Centrist politics results in political fragmentation.
This was the FPÖ's biggest political success in Austria so far - except for one election in which Jörg Haider won the premiership of the state of Carinthia. Der Standard puts the FPÖ's electoral potential at over 30%, which would make Strache a serious contender for the job of chancellor at the next general election in 2018. It was also the biggest success of the Green Party. Van der Bellen's strategy is that he can consolidate the support of the centrist parties. The third-place candidate, a former constitutional court justice, said she had not made up her mind yet on whom to support in the second-round.
In a commentary Alexandra Foderl-Schmid made the point that the SPÖ did not benefit from their U-turn over refugees. Chancellor Werner Faymann, who had originally supported Angela Merkel's open-door policies, has not been rewarded by the voters (nor have the CDU candidates who went against Merkel's during Germany's regional elections, why vote for centrist turncoats when you can have the real thing?) She also made the point that the emergence of the FPÖ and the Greens as the victorious parties may lead to a realignment of Austrian politics. Faymann said yesterday that he would support the Green candidate.
If the FPÖ comes to power in Austria, the whole Central-Eastern-European region will have turned to the right politically. While the FPÖ is gaining in Austria, Fidesz in Hungary, and Fico's Social Democrats are all part of different party grouping in the European Parliament, they have a lot more in common with one another than with their respective international allies. Witness the rebirth of Austria-Hungary - this time as farce.