Austria Election Results Far Right Benefits from Voter Dissatisfaction

The voters have spoken in Austria, and for the first time neither of the country's two largest parties managed to attract more than 30 percent of voters. It was the far-right parties that benefited from the electorate's frustration with the grand coalition's political shennanigans.
Von Marion Kraske

He does what he does best: beam. Werner Faymann raises his head and gazes out into the crowd. In the tent full of Social Democrats set up just a few meters from the Burg Theater, the applause is deafening. The loudspeaker is blaring "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow" as the head of Austria's Social Democratic SPÖ party mounts the podium and celebrates. Looking elegant in his dark suit and gray-blue tie, he glances around the room visibly touched. "We intend to build a government," he says, though his words are drowned out by the clapping.

Faymann has succeeded in accomplishing what even loyal members of the party thought impossible just a few weeks ago: Once again, he has made the Social Democrats the strongest party in Austria. It was in no way a sure thing. When Wilhelm Molterer, the head of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), dissolved the battered grand coalition this summer with the words "That's enough," it first looked like the Social Democrats would be caught completely flat-footed. The predictions were bad. Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer had been too weak in office, people claimed, too vague, and he had been too yielding when it came to the ÖVP.

What followed was a palace revolution among the Social Democrats. Gusenbauer was shot down by his own comrades, and Faymann took his place both as head of the party and as its candidate for chancellor. And Faymann -- with his permagrin and salt-and-pepper hairdo -- got things going with a major populist offensive. He announced a new course that was critical of the EU. He promised heaven and earth and that everyone would benefit from his generous policies: families, students, people in long-term care and retirees.

The Winner as Loser

It worked. The SPÖ managed to stand its ground. But it was a result that also left those celebrating in the tent ill at ease. Their party was only able to get 29.7 percent of the vote -- 5.6 percent down on its vote in the 2006 election -- a rather lame performance. The only thing to really soften the blow was the fact that the ÖVP did even worse. That party's top candidate, the somewhat stiff and less charismatic Molterer, had to swallow this election's bitterest pill. He only brought in 25.6 percent of the vote, despite the fact that he was so certain of victory when he called for new elections.

The results will only be finalized on Oct. 6. But, as things stand now, neither of the large parties succeeded in attracting more than 30 percent of the vote, a first in Austrian politics. All signs are pointing to a veritable crisis for Austria's major parties, both of which got a slap in the face from voters -- and a hard one at that.

And not without reason. Over the last two years, the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government has been characterized by one catastrophe after the other: endless political troubles, a non-stop political circus. During this period, the parties seemed more concerned with expressing their hatred and animosity toward each other than with fulfilling their obligations to the country. The electorate was fed up.

Triumph in Blue

Others were celebrating a brilliant victory late Sunday, particularly Heinz-Christian Strache, the 39-year-old head of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). In his party's tent set up just a few meters away from city hall, Strache stands beneath a see of blue balloons. As usual, he's used a bit too much gel in his hair, and his steel-blue eyes have a strange, glassy look. It's been a "historic achievement," Strache yells hoarsely into the microphone as the young man with a scar on his cheek, the retiree with the knitted sweater and the fake blonde go crazy with applause. Their triumphant hero speaks to them of how the grand coalition has not only be punished at the polls but voted out of power.

In the 2006 election, the FPÖ only managed to bring in a modest 11.04 percent of the votes, behind the Greens. But now everything has changed. Strache's party, which nationalist groupings and members of the extreme right call home, climbed to a very respectable 18 percent. Having now become the third-strongest power, the FPÖ is now a force in its own right and might become much more attractive to the large parties.

But will Strache be the kingmaker? As a young man, Strache played paramilitary games with known neo-Nazis in the forests of Carinthia, and he has been forced to admit having had close ties with the now-outlawed right-wing extremist "Viking Youth" group. But now he plays the part of a Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes and demands that he be given an important role in the future government, and he even drops rather big hints that he has his eyes set on becoming chancellor. Newcomers, immigrants and asylum seekers -- they will all have to brace themselves for what lies ahead, as will the political system in the Alpine state. That's because Strache isn't the type of person concerned with making peace; he's much too interested in using some heavy rhetorical baiting. One day you'll find him raging against the "EU constitutional dictates" and the next against "globalization insanity." And he loves to speak out against foreigners.

Potential Combinations

Strache is in no way the only one who has benefited from the Austrians' frustration at the political status quo. His former mentor, Jörg Haider and his right-wing Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ) party were able to pull in 11 percent of the vote -- or almost three times as much as they did in the last elections. In the party's Vienna-based Zukunftakademie ("future academy"), the party members -- many of whom were dapper men clad in designer suits -- wildly celebrated the success with beer and hors d'oeuvres. Haider's success was the biggest surprise of the election.

Though they were once close, Haider and Strache have now completely fallen out. Strache accuses his former mentor of having betrayed the FPÖ. Following a disagreement, Haider abandoned the FPÖ in 2005 and founded the BZÖ. But political observers in Vienna are already asking themselves what would happen if the two rivals were to patch up their differences and join forces into an alliance similar to that of the CDU and CSU in Germany. If they did so, the whole political power structure in Austria would be thrown into complete confusion.

Together, the FPÖ and the BZÖ would have 29 percent of the vote, which would put them at eye level with the SPÖ. Even if the far right is fragmented into two parties, it is still stronger than it ever has been. Indeed, it is in an even stronger position than it was in 1999, when Haider made the FPÖ the second-strongest party with 27 percent of the vote.

Temptation on the Right

But what will follow after this shift to the right? Will the country's large parties be able to withstand the temptation, this alluring power on the right-wing margins? After all, few find the idea of a recreating the coalition government between the Christian- and Social Democrats attractive -- the divisions are too deep and the contempt too great between the current governing partners. The last television debate between Molterer and Faymann provided only the latest evidence of how incapable Austria's two biggest parties -- whose support is waning -- are of working together now. The below-the-belt verbal attacks as well as constant interruptions weren't exactly the kind of dialogue you would expect from future coalition partners.

During the election campaign, Faymann had already made clear that his party would only be willing to reenter into a coalition between the SPÖ and ÖVP without the balking Molterer. But if Molterer is unwilling to step down voluntarily, other solutions will have to be found.

For his part, Faymann also categorically ruled out on election night the possibility of a government with the FPÖ and BZÖ. The only remaining option for the SPÖ, which is expected to be requested by Austrian President Heinz Fischer to form a government, would be to put together a tolerated minority coalition.

And what about the ÖVP, the party that has been left licking its wounds like no other after its disastrous result? The party has already shown its willingness in the past to buck convention. After the 1999 election, then party chairman Wolfgang Schüssel scored an historic coup: By pulling Haider's FPÖ, which secured the third most votes, into the government, he not only snapped the chancellery away from the Social Democrats, but also ended a decades-long tradition of joint Christian- and Social Democratic rule.

For years, Schlüssel gloated about the fact that -- by including the right-wing populist FPÖ into his government as well as its leading figure Haider -- he had helped to eliminate the far-right's mystique. But Sunday's election result has proved otherwise.

With reporting by Stefan Domnanovich

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