Divided Austria

Austria went to the polls yesterday for its presidential election. Last time around, in 2016, Alexander Van der Bellen from the Greens was narrowly elected with 53.8% in a runoff against the far right’s Norbert Hofer. Hofer had led in the first round with 35.1% against five opponents.

But an Austrian president is mostly a ceremonial official, like an Australian governor-general, so an incumbent running for re-election (there’s a limit of two six-year terms) usually faces only token opposition. Heinz Fischer, a former Social Democrat, was re-elected in 2010 with 79.3% of the vote; twelve years earlier Thomas Klestil, originally from the centre-right, had 63.4%.

Van der Bellen won re-election as well, but with only 54.6% of the vote he was well short of unanimity (it may come up slightly with postal votes). Four of his six opponents represented varying shades of far-right opinion: between them they had 35.6%, more than half of that (19.1%) with the Freedom Party’s Walter Rosenkranz. A joke candidate, Dominik Wlazny of the Beer Party, managed 8.2%.

Compare that with the last federal election in Austria, three years ago. The far right then had just 16.2%; the three parties that were backing Van der Bellen yesterday (Social Democrats, Greens and liberals) had 43.2% in aggregate, and the centre-right People’s Party, which didn’t actually endorse Van der Bellen but chose not to run against him, had 37.5%. It looks as if only about a third of centre-right voters supported Van der Bellen, and that most of them found their way to the far right – despite the fact that People’s Party and Greens are in coalition at federal level.

So next year’s federal election is wide open, and the far right could play an important role. The chance of the incumbent coalition retaining its majority seems slim; its two parties are currently running third and fifth in the polls, with about 21% for the People’s Party and about 10% for the Greens. If the Social Democrats, now polling in the high 20s, maintain their lead then they may be in a position to form a coalition with the Greens and liberals.

That didn’t happen, however, in the state of Tyrol, which voted last month (previewed here). There the fall in the centre-right vote turned out to be rather less than expected; it topped the poll with 34.7% (down 9.6%) and won 14 of the 36 seats. Social Democrats, Greens, liberals and regionalists had 42.9% (up 4.3%) and 15 seats between them, with the far right taking 18.8% (up 3.3%) and the remaining seven seats.

There is therefore no way the People’s Party can be unseated: premier Anton Mattle will have a free choice of partners, being able to reach a majority with either the Freedom Party, the Social Democrats or any two of the Greens, liberals and regionalists.

Grand coalition between centre-right and centre-left has a long history in Austria; such coalitions currently govern in the states of Carinthia and Styria. But one fared badly yesterday in neighboring Germany, where Lower Saxony went to the polls. Its Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had won 70.5% of the vote between them last time and ended up in coalition after Greens and Liberals could not be persuaded to work together.

Yesterday they fell to a total of 61.5% – still a clear majority (105 seats out of 137, by the look of it), but a sign that their voters were not happy. The Greens made big gains (up 5.8% to 14.5%), but so did the far-right Alternative for Germany, up 4.7% to 10.9% after a run of recent poor results. And the Liberals paid the price of their obstruction last time, dropping 2.8% to 4.7% and therefore falling below the 5% threshold.

Social Democrats and Greens will have a comfortable majority and will presumably govern together, as they do federally. But in both Germany and Austria they will need to be conscious of the continuing threat from the far right.

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