The federal elections indeed gave rise to a strong vote of sanction against the SPÖ and its conservative coalition partner, the ÖVP. The two supposedly “major parties” achieved the worst electoral results of their history.
On the contrary, the extreme right-wing parties FPÖ and BZÖ highly profited from the popular discontent.
Bitter victory for the SPÖ
First of all, it is important to underline the victory of the SPÖ, which was far from being acquired when the conservatives ended the big coalition last July. The social democrats, “parties of 21%” according to a strategist of the party, remained the first Austrian political force with 29.7% of the votes. This tour de force was however achieved by Werner Faymann with a consequent major reinforcement of populism and does not prove the good health of the Austrian political system. The SPÖ candidate indeed did not hesitate to ride the Eurosceptic wave by showing his links with the Europhobe tabloid Neue Kronen Zeitung and by promising referendums for all future European treaties.
It is however mainly the price rise which led to this victory, according to Joseph Cap, the head of the SPÖ fraction. On this subject, social democrats rested on the extreme right for a number of populist measures passed during the week preceding the election. The financing of these electoral gifts should constitute a puzzle for the next Austrian government…
The extreme right to the top
If the social democrat militants have today “an eye which laughs, an eye which cries”, it is because the true winners of the election are the FPÖ and the BZÖ. Both extreme right-wing parties obtained 29% of the votes, i.e. more than the score of the FPÖ in 1999, when Jörg Haider had entered the Austrian government, starting the clash with the EU. The situation is today different, since the extreme right is divided between Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ (18% of the voices) and the BZÖ (11%) of Jörg Haider. Both men have strained relations since Haider has left the FPÖ in 2005, and would not be ready to work together at the national level.
The fact that 3 Austrians out of 10 voted for Europhobe politicians - xenophobe, populist and marked with links with the neo-Nazis - cannot be explained simply through the momentary sanction by the Austrian citizens, as an excellent editorial of the Guardian underlines.
The SPÖ has already claimed for the Chancellor’s post and excluded any alliance with the “neo-fascists”. The only solution for obtaining a majority would then be a new alliance with the ÖVP, which obtained only 25.6%. In order not to reproduce the inactivity of the last coalition, the SPÖ wished however a change of person at the head of the Conservative Party. It was quickly done with the resignation of the ÖVP candidate Wilhelm Molterer, replaced by Josef Pröll the day after the elections.
This change seems to pave the way for new SPÖ-ÖVP alliance, even if the conservatives say their strategy has not finished, yet. In spite of the historical turn of September 28, certain representatives of the party would like to conquer the chancellery while resting on both extreme right-wing parties.
Concern for the future
At present, it is a return to a big coalition which seems the most probable option. An option which seems logical but also risky: the last eighteen months of coalition were a succession of fights and crises between the two partners. The extreme right could profit from the inactivity and dissatisfaction for doubling its electorate during this period. A new big coalition would not have this time the right of wrongdoing, as it would then find itself again in the same camp, but this time as opposition to an extreme right majority after the next elections.
Mathematical victory of the SPÖ Eurosceptics, psychological victory of the extreme Europhobe right… Whereas the opinion is coarsely influenced by the Europhobe press, the friends of Europe have a lot to worry about Austria from the point of view of the European elections of 2009…