Despite some early fears, the Austrian capital maintained its reputation as “red Vienna” in local elections held on Sunday. Social Democrat mayor Michael Häupl, in office since 1994, will retain his job after the incumbent coalition of Social Democrats and Greens won 54 of the city council’s 100 seats – down six from their 2010 total. (Official results here.)
Häupl’s liberal stance on Europe’s current refugee crisis had been thought to put him in some danger from the far-right Freedom Party. And indeed the Freedom Party made gains: up 5% to 30.8% and 34 seats. But that’s nowhere near enough to be threatening a takeover; the governing parties still had 51.4% of the vote between them, and the smaller parties – the conservative People’s Party (9.2% and seven seats) and the liberal NEOS (6.2% and five seats) – would almost certainly back the Social Democrats if need be to keep the far right out.
The ABC’s report gives a good rundown on the issues in the election, but sadly fails to explain the electoral arithmetic: the reader would be left with the impression that it was a first-past-the-post contest for mayor, and that the Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache would have won the job (which doubles as governor, since Vienna is a state as well as a city) if he’d managed a few more per cent to get ahead of Häupl. Not so.
The Freedom Party has been making up ground across Austria all year, most recently in the state election two weeks ago in Upper Austria, where the People’s Party had its worst result in living memory. But the latter remains the largest party and is expected to remain in office with the support of the Social Democrats and/or Greens.
Moreover, despite a widespread (and understandable) sensitivity about racist demagogues from Austria, the Freedom Party is more like France’s National Front than Greece’s Golden Dawn: neo-fascist, but not neo-Nazi. It governed in the state of Carinthia for many years, and federally was a junior partner in coalition with the People’s Party a decade ago. Democracy survived both experiences, and no doubt would do again.
A different strategy for dealing with the far right is on show in neighboring Switzerland, which holds its federal election next Sunday and where the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is again expected to emerge as the largest party. The SVP* is probably not as far to the right as Austria’s Freedom Party, but it partakes of the same Europhobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Switzerland however has a different, in fact unique, constitutional structure. The federal government has relatively few powers (most functions being exercised by the cantons), and instead of a president or prime minister it has a seven-member collective head of government, the Federal Council. The Federal Council is elected by both houses of parliament but is not responsible to them: once elected its members sit for fixed four-year terms.
Since the members are elected individually, it would be possible for a parliamentary majority to vote itself all seven positions, producing an executive with political coherence. But that isn’t the Swiss way of doing things. Instead, positions are shared out by agreement among the major parliamentary groups – currently two social democrats, two liberals, one from each of two centre-right parties and one from the hard right SVP.
A quick look at the 2011 election result reveals that this formula bears little relationship to the parties’ relative strength in the electorate. The SVP topped the poll with 26.6%, ahead of the Social Democrats on 18.7% and the Liberals on 15.1%. Three centre-right or Christian Democrat parties had a combined 19.7%, while two Green parties had 13.8% between them but scored no seats on the Federal Council.
Opinion polls suggest that Sunday’s result will be broadly similar: the SVP is holding its existing level of support and probably increasing a little; the Liberals are gaining a bit at the expense of the centre-right. But no party will have anywhere close to a majority – voting is D’Hondt proportional within each canton – and without that there is no prospect of changing the basic governmental framework.
That’s probably just as well, since in most respects Switzerland’s anachronistic system works rather well. But it makes for odd bedfellows at the top, as was demonstrated by last year’s referendum on immigration restrictions. The fact that the SVP participates in government did not stop it from pushing a proposal that undermined the foreign policy interests of the government as a whole.
As I said at the time, there’s something to be said for a “more conventional sort of responsible government, where parties move in and out of office and can be made accountable for government policy.”
* Note that its French abbreviation is UDC, for Democratic Union of the Centre, a complete misnomer.