October 13, 2017
Why Austria’s vote matters
Austria goes to the polls on Sunday. There is a widespread expectation that the ruling grand coalition is likely to end, and replaced with a coalition of the centre-right ÖVP and the far-right FPÖ, but there are many uncertainties, including the rather large number of people who have not yet made up their mind. The inclusion of the FPÖ in the next government would complete the shift to the right not just in Austria itself, but in the entire region. Poland and Hungary both have governments of the right, and it looks that both Austria and the Czech Republic - which goes to the polls next Thursday - are moving in the same direction. We are looking at an insurrection by the Habsburg Empire against the EU.
There is a generalised rule in European politics - the smaller the country, the harder to understand its politics from the outside. Belgium is a famous example, but Austrian politics is also right up there. The best analysis we have seen so far is from Stephan Löwenstein, who wrote in FAZ that the decline in the SPÖ's popularity is of a different kind than the decline in the SPD in Germany. Chancellor Christian Kern is quite popular, but the Austrians are fed with the permanent grand coalition, which has been running the country for most of the last four decades.
We are noting similar voter reactions against centrist coalitions in other countries. Löwenstein notes that both parties are now actively wooing the FPÖ as a potential coalition partner, and it is this that makes the end of the grand coalition credible in the eyes of the voters. This is also why the FPÖ has lost support over the Summer. Many people are switching to the ÖVP in the certain knowledge that its leading candidate, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz would not re-enter a grand coalition. Depending on the outcome of the elections, an SPÖ/FPÖ coalition is also possible. One reason is that the FPÖ might find the SPÖ an easier coalition partner to deal with. There are still memories of a previous coalition with the centre-right under Wolfgang Schüssel, which ended disastrously for the FPÖ. But FPÖ and ÖVP have a lot more in common, including on refugee policy, and they both share a broadly eurosceptic outlook. While an ÖVP/FPÖ coalition is seen as the more likely outcome, the Austrian elections are not nearly as slam-dunk as the Germans elections were, in the sense that Angela Merkel was widely and correct predicted to remaining in office. The results were still a surprise, but the ultimate expectations about Merkel held up.
If the consensus view on Austria prevails, central and eastern Europe will tilt further away from the Brussels consensus. The Habsburg Empire has long disappeared of course, but Austria is still a small regional power.