In my preview the other day, I summarised the options for the Austrian election like this:
So if the Freedom Party comes third, perhaps only a couple of percentage points ahead of the 20.5% that it won in 2013, it would be a moral setback for the far right across the continent. On the other hand, if it scores in the high 20s, comfortably clear of the Social Democrats and ahead of its previous high-water mark of 26.9% from 1999, it will be another body blow to the fortunes of the centre-left, coming on top of record defeats in France and Germany.
I thought the second outcome was more likely, but in fact it’s about midway between the two. On preliminary results, the far-right Freedom Party has beaten the Social Democrats for second place. Not comfortably, though; they’re only 26,000 votes ahead, 27.4% to 26.7%, and with postal votes yet to be counted it’s possible the centre-left could make up that difference.
Even a small gain on the postals would put the Social Democrats ahead of their 2013 result of 26.8%, but since that was already a historic low it would not be much consolation. The Freedom Party, on the other hand, is either at or very close to a record high – although a third-place finish would tarnish that a little, since just a year ago it held first place in the polls by a wide margin.
Well ahead of both, as expected, is the centre-right People’s Party, currently on 31.4%. That’s a bit short of what the polls had been saying, but it’s still up 7.4% on last time. Its leader Sebastian Kurz, who gambled on forcing the early election and on taking his party to the right to steal the Freedom Party’s thunder, will undoubtedly be Austria’s new chancellor.
Kurz has avoided committing himself on the shape of a coalition, saying only that he will talk to all parties, but it’s regarded as a virtual certainty that he will take on the Freedom Party as a junior partner.
For a world worried about the rise of the far right, the consolation there is that Kurz’s position will be strong enough to keep them in the junior position; he can always go back to the Social Democrats if they prove troublesome. But since Kurz reached that strength by pandering to far-right policies, that also is a small consolation.
The parliamentary arithmetic rules out any role for the minor parties, whose numbers have dropped sharply in any case. Team Stronach has left the scene, and the Greens have split, with veteran Peter Pilz leaving to form his own ticket. The two combined suffered a swing of 5%, but Pilz’s list came out ahead on 4.1%, with the official Greens on 3.3% – below the 4% threshold for representation.
The Greens always do very well on postals, so it’s not impossible they could still make it back, but it’s a big ask.
Completing the parliamentary lineup is the liberal party, NEOS, which held its 5.0% of the vote. No-one else was anywhere near the 4% mark; a new populist group called “My Vote Counts” had 0.9% and the Communists 0.7%. Unlike much of Europe, Austria has not seen any revival in support for the far left.
So as the centre-left’s year of woe continues, Austria’s Social Democrats will have to settle for the thought that it could easily have been worse. They can also point to neighboring Germany, whose Social Democrats won a rather unexpected victory in a state election in Lower Saxony.
According to Politico‘s report, the Social Democrats won 37.3% of the vote, up 4.7% on 2013 and about four points ahead of the Christian Democrats.
Either of them will still need both Greens and Liberals to put together a parliamentary majority (just as Angela Merkel is trying to do at federal level), but at the very least it’s a badly needed morale boost for the SPD.