After the Election
Amid upsets and surprises, the governing parties have a tall order ahead of them
The German saying "Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben" ("Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched") proved true once again on 29 September. Both Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Conservatives (ÖVP), while still victorious, had to face major losses.
But unlike other EU countries, the Austrian coalition was not voted out. With a small majority of 99 seats in Parliament, only seven more than necessary to form a government, the two parties will begin talks on a coalition programme. And so it is highly likely that SPÖ-chancellor Werner Faymann and ÖVP-foreign minister Michael Spindelegger will form a government for the next five years.
So what went wrong? To start, the Social Democrats did not succeed in mobilising enough of their core voters; the rather low turnout was bad for the reds.
The disputed traffic concept on Mariahilfer Straße – a project of the red-green coalition in Vienna – was also not helpful.
The Liberal Alliance NEOS was surely the big surprise of this election.
With the help of entrepreneur Hans Peter Haselsteiner, the NEOS became the first party ever to make it past the 4% hurdle and into Parliament on the first try, with most votes coming from disappointed ÖVP supporters, which proves that the ÖVP has a problem. A lack of ideas and initiative leaves them paralysed. They look dowdy – and not only to younger voters – a symbol of stagnation.
Unlike the recent regional elections, the Greens only gained 1%, below pre-election surveys. But as always, party head Eva Glawischnig was complacent in early reactions to the outcome, reluctant to admit that campaigning as the party of anti-corruption and environmental activism while avoiding taxes and the economy was simply not good enough.
The Austro-Canadian neo-politician and billionaire Frank Stronach was taught an important lesson, too: Money can’t buy you votes. The €100 per voter Stronach spent, as calculated by ORF news anchor Armin Wolf on election day, did not pay off. Stronach did lure away a handful of deputies from the rival BZÖ (Bündnis Zukunft Österreich), which brought him media attention.
But he made a fool of himself in the TV debates, costing him supporters, who went back to his populist rival Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the right-wing party FPÖ.
In Stronach’s home state of Styria, the FPÖ made it to the top of the polls. Both Strache and Stronach had benefited from the regional government’s unpopular plans to clump together communities: Some of the mayors affected even appealed to voters not to vote for their own parties.
Strache understands that you can’t work against the will of the citizens. It’s as if he’s saying, "Look into my blue eyes. I’ll take care of you! Yes, you!" But even though his claims of affection are hollow, the FPÖ gains reveal a great deal of frustration among former SPÖ sympathisers.
If the SPÖ and ÖVP want to restore the reputation of the "Grand Coalition", they will have to be quick in addressing what is most important to Austrian voters: taxation of middle incomes, reforms of the education system, and a re-orientation of their political and communication style. They will have to open themselves up and make participation possible.
And even though the demographic of young voters did not seem important to party spin doctors until recently, the once-strongest parties will have to make offers to the young to keep up with the times.
It’s simply not enough to repeat all over again that Austria has the lowest rate of youth unemployment in the EU: The demands and fears of the younger generation need to be taken seriously.
Otherwise this will not only be the smallest "Grand Coalition" of all time.
It will also be the last one. ¸
Werner Reisinger holds an MA in contemporary history. He works as an editor for the ORF and as a freelance journalist.