Austria goes to the polls on Sunday, not quite two years after its last election. The parliament’s term was cut short due to a governmental crisis in May, when then-deputy chancellor and far right leader Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after he was caught on tape soliciting illegal campaign contributions from Russia. (Read my report on the scandal here.)
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, of the centre-right People’s Party, was left with little choice but to evict Strache’s Freedom Party from government and call for an early election. He was then removed by a vote of no confidence, and Brigitte Bierlein, the president of the constitutional court, was sworn in as head of a caretaker government.
Kurz, who in 2017 had taken his party to the right to try to win back ground from the Freedom Party, therefore earned some credit for standing up to the far right. There’s no doubt that on Sunday the People’s Party will again be returned as the largest single party, and equally little doubt that it will not have a majority in its own right. The next step, however, is less clear.
Voting is D’Hondt proportional across the whole country, with a threshold of 4%. Last time around, five parties won seats: centre-right, centre-left, far right, the liberal Neos, and the Peter Pilz List (now called Jetzt, or “Now”), a breakaway from the Greens.
This time, unless the polls are very wrong, the Greens will be back and Jetzt will drop out, but otherwise it will be the same five. Last time, however, the two smaller parties didn’t matter because any two of the top three – People’s Party, Social Democrats and Freedom Party – had a majority between them.
That’s not likely to happen again. The People’s Party has been losing ground during the campaign, but is still tracking at about 34% in the opinion polls, up from 31.5% in 2017. Its two main rivals, which finished less than one point apart last time, are both down: the Social Democrats in the low 20s and the Freedom Party around 20%.
In the election to the European parliament four months ago, the People’s Party led with 34.5%, followed by the Social Democrats on 23.9%, Freedom Party 17.2%, Greens 14.1% and Neos 8.4%. The Freedom Party seems to have recovered a little from that low point, but otherwise there’s not much change.
So a coalition between centre-left and far right – improbable, but a theoretical possibility last time (it has happened before, in the 1980s, although the Freedom Party was more centrist then) – will no longer command a majority. Instead, Kurz will have the option of linking up with the Greens and Neos. If the Greens, who are currently polling in the low teens, do particularly well it’s even possible that they alone would give him the numbers.
And despite his right-wing record, Kurz appears to be thinking in those terms. According to AP, he has said that “every democratically elected party can potentially be in a government,” and as Reuters’ Francois Murphy reports it “would fit with Kurz’s self-branding as a modernizer, despite much of his agenda being conservative orthodoxy.”
Two years ago, by far the biggest issue in central Europe was the refugee crisis, and the centre-right was trying to show its hard-line credentials so as to stem the flow of support to the far right. While that will still be a barrier to co-operation with the Greens, it’s not as salient as it was; new possibilities have opened up.
It’s also, of course, possible that Kurz could go back to a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, a relatively common option in Austria. But the last such coalition ended badly, and the Social Democrats, polling at record lows, are unlikely to be keen on the idea.
Or else the Freedom Party, now suitably chastened and under a new leader, Norbert Hofer, could be readmitted to government. The People’s Party looks like having a range of options, and that should prevent any of its potential partners from being too demanding.
But if the result is that Kurz, who two years ago was the new shining hope of right-wing Europe, ends up governing alongside the Greens, it will strikingly illustrate the caprice of fortune.