Strategy debates of Austrian parties for legislative election 2017

How are political movements positioned? How do they react to changes in the society and with which topics do they position themselves where in the political debate?
In this overview of political strategy debates of political parties in selected European and non-European countries, the authors strive to present political analyses not in text form, but graphically and pointedly. We hope this product contributes to a constructive discussion.

Austrian legislative election 2017

The dynamics of the electoral competition

Austria was characterised by a stable party system dominated by two major parties during the post-war era - the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Lately, the Social Democrats remained in the opposition for two terms until 2006, when the party regained the chancellorship and formed two consecutive coalition governments with the ÖVP which lasted until May 2017.

As a result of the collapse of the Grand Coalition (of SPÖ-ÖVP), Austrian parliamentary elections will take place prematurely on October 15, 2017. Current polls predict a tight race between the SPÖ, ÖVP and the FPÖ. Recent polls foresee the ÖVP to emerge victorious (33 per cent), the second place is a close call between the Social Democrats (27 percent) and the FPÖ (25 per cent). Polling much lower, and out of reach of the major political forces, the Greens and NEOS are expected to score single-digits at best. Team Stronach chose not to compete again. Due to the four per cent electoral threshold, (re-)entry into parliament might prove to be a difficult task for other, smaller parties. The conservative-liberal camp of the Austrian party system has seen an almost constant rumble since the 1990s, with several breakaways due to the FPÖ gaining seats. The liberal unrest continues, with the progressive-liberal newcomer NEOS making electoral inroads since 2013. For the first time, the Pilz stands a chance of entering parliament. The party was founded by Peter Pilz a former politician from the Green party.

Right from the beginning the 2017 election campaign was dominated by intraparty conflicts. Due to the premature termination of the Grand Coalition, possible coalition variants are being discussed in the media landscape before the actual election outcome. Apart from economic issues, the main topics dominating the public debate are migration, integration and asylum as well as defence mechanisms against terrorism.

Issues raised by the SPÖ, under the lead of current chancellor Christian Kern, were pushed into the background by early speculations of possible successors and discussions about regional politicians. The same applies for the ÖVP, which captures media attention over its internal restructuring rather than its election programme. It is expected that the Christian Democrats, now called “Liste Sebastian Kurz”, will win the upcoming elections. 

Individual Overview

The Strategic situation of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ)

Maintaining the funding of the welfare state

Despite its decline in recent elections, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) remains one of the major actors in the Austrian party system. The party managed to successfully establish its appeal across social classes during the 1970s and was a dominant coalition partner in alternating government compositions: the SPÖ-FPÖ governments between 1986 and 1990 and the SPÖ-ÖVP during the 1990s. After two terms in the opposition, the party regained the chancellorship in 2006 and formed two consecutive coalition governments with ÖVP which lasted until May 2017.

Only a year and a half after heading the Austrian government, opinion polls predict a weakening of the SPÖ, led by Chancellor Werner Faymann. Already in 2013, the Austrian election resulted in all-time lows for both mainstream parties, the SPÖ and ÖVP. Still, they secured a combined majority by a tiny margin and managed to form a coalition government. After a period of favourable mid-year performance in the polls, the SPÖ is currently trailing behind the conservative ÖVP, with some polls indicating that the Social Democrats might become the third largest party, falling behind the ÖVP too.

The party has maintained its traditional focus on socio-economic issues such as labour protection and tax reduction for lower incomes. Moreover, the SPÖ proposes an increase of pensions, the introduction of a nationwide minimum wage, and formulated policies for job creation. In addition to introducing an inheritance tax, the Social Democrats are in favour on introducing a levy on value-added as means of maintaining the funding of the welfare state. Since the electoral performance of SPÖ has progressively declined in recent years, the party is currently working hard to regain it. In order to consolidate its core electorate beyond older citizens, modern approaches to economic activities targeting youth have found a place in the party platform. For instance, the Chancellor reiterated his ambition to keep (social) housing affordable by means of implementing a cap on rents. With regard to cultural issues, the Austrian Social Democrats combine progressive and conservative views. They are vehemently in favour of same-sex marriage and participate in social disputes regarding social equality and fight against gender discrimination.

Another stance that could be considered conservative/traditionalist is the unwillingness of the SPÖ to introduce legislation that would make it possible for immigrants to obtain dual citizenship. This example illustrates the SPÖ’s increased focus on domestic issues with a populist tendency, opening a door to a government coalition with the right-wing-populist party FPÖ. In June, the Social Democrats announced that they will be dropping a 30-year ban on allying with the FPÖ.

The strategic situation of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP)

Highlights concerns regarding immigration and asylum-seekers

The Austrian People’s Party, traditionally strongly represented in rural areas as well as in the western federal states, underwent a substantial formal transformation in the run-up to the 2017 parliamentary elections. In order to expand their core voter base, traditionally comprised of entrepreneurs, business owners and farmers, the ÖVP decided to appeal to a younger and more urban electorate under the new leadership of Sebastian Kurz. The party’s name on the ballot paper will now read “Liste Kurz – die neue Volkspartei”. Political newcomers and fresh faces are supposed to alter the political landscape. This strategic reformation was marked by increased media presence and displayed in the choosing of a new political colour (turquoise).

However, the external modernisation is not reflected in the stance of the ÖVP, which remains staunchly conservative. Its leader and the current minister of foreign affairs and integration, Sebastian Kurz, frequently highlights concerns regarding immigration and asylum-seekers, in the light of the ongoing refugee crisis on the borders of Europe. The party persistently demands that it is necessary to close the Mediterranean refugee routes in order to further diminish human trafficking and smuggling. In addition, the ÖVP focuses on security and defence issues, such as border control, digital security and surveillance, as well as the fight against terrorism – hence the placement along the conservative axis. In addition, the ÖVP remains staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage and believes the sacrament of marriage should only be granted to heterosexual couples. These conservative stances limit their reach of new voter groups with a more modern social outlook and also results in a relatively large overlap of several positions with the liberal-populist FPÖ.

With regard to economic issues, the ÖVP is also true to their traditional values. To safeguard family income, the conservatives want inheritances to remain tax-free, while the party also suggests to reduce taxation for social security. These policies basically relieve the tax-burden on companies and the (upper) middle class, but also necessitate welfare state retrenchment. Here the party suggests a reformation of the needs-based minimum benefit system and a separate, reduced, welfare model for people who were granted asylum in Austria. Concerning education, the ÖVP stands for stricter regulation of access to higher education, as well as the need for teaching migrants the German language. Moreover, the ÖVP wants to introduce ethics classes for children who do not take religion and establish civic education as a compulsory subject for all pupils.

The strategic situation of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)

Focus on migration and extension of direct democracy

According to the polls, the Freedom Party of Austria has considerable potential for joining a right-wing coalition government with the ÖVP. Given their ideological convergence on many issues, this appears to be a very viable option. In the weeks leading up to the elections, topics of which populists traditionally have issue ownership, namely asylum-seekers and immigration, were increasingly highlighted by the ÖVP. The FPÖ remains true to their conservative values and begin their manifesto with the principle “Austria is not an immigration country”.

During the election campaign, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache initiated a debate about dual citizenship. He demands that Austrian citizens who own a passport from another country should be stripped of their Austrian citizenship. Moreover, the party encourages limitations on voting rights that solely allow Austrian citizens to vote. In addition to aim of generally restricting immigration and asylum, the FPÖ is also opposed to same-sex marriage, aligning themselves with the conservatives.

A central proposition in the party’s manifesto is the extension of direct democracy. Based on the Swiss model, legally binding referendums should become the norm, if it were up to the FPÖ. In an extensive economic programme presented alongside its manifesto, the Freedom Party shows it is strongly in favour of free market policies, lower taxation and economic deregulation, along with strong chauvinist welfare state rhetoric. Another important proposition is the abolition of mandatory membership in the chambers of the social partnership, basically dismantling the traditional economic consensus model with strong emphasis on corporatist negotiations of employer and employees. With this rejection of the traditional social capitalist model, the FPÖ presents itself often as an “anti-system-party”, providing an alternative to the ‘cartel’ of SPÖ and ÖVP.

The strategic situation of the Austrian Green Party (Greens)

Positioning in the upper left/progressive corner

The Greens – “Die Grüne Alternative” – present themselves as a progressive and left-wing alternative to mainstream parties in the Austrian political landscape. The party’s guiding principles are social justice issues, such as the demand for limitations on maximum rent increases, the introduction of an inheritance tax, paternity leave for fathers and a minimum wage. Characteristic “green” environmental topics like the consistent adherence to global climate targets, the complete withdrawal from the nuclear energy programme, and increasing state subsidies for public transport ensure the positioning in the upper left/progressive corner of the political map.

However, before the crucial phase of the electoral campaign began, the Greens were plagued by internal strife and personnel changes, which ultimately lead to a split of veteran parliamentarian Peter Pilz – resulting in the formation of the new party “Liste Pilz”. Once it became clear that the government was about to fall and new elections were inevitable, Eva Glawischnig, the party leader at the time, resigned. A new dual leadership of Ulrike Lunacek and Ingrid Felipe was then formed. A split with the youth wing of the party indicates ongoing internal rifts. These internal problems deflected the Greens’ campaign away from the actual political content and polls logically predict a substantial loss because of these inner-party conflicts.

The strategic situation of “The New Austrian and Liberal Forum“ (NEOS)

Core subject is education

Much of the media-attention focused on the NEOS candidate line-up in the electoral campaign. After weeks of relentless efforts, party founder and leader Matthias Strolz managed to get Irmgard Griss on board. Griss used to be head of the Supreme Court and competed in the 2016 Austrian presidential elections. The party even added her name to the official title on the ballots.

The forum, running their second campaign for parliamentary elections, pursues a right-wing economic policy combined with a progressive cultural agenda. Their core voters base consists of young, urban professionals and entrepreneurs, with a mostly progressive-liberal outlook. Education is a very salient issue for NEOS. Regardless of the libertarian stances on cultural issues, party leader Strolz seems to favour a coalition, where he would assume the post of education minister. The party proposes an increase the education budget in general. They believe access to higher education should no longer be free of charge, but rather regulated with downstream tuition fees. With the introduction of admission exams, the number of students at universities should be limited.

NEOS is in favour of further European integration, highlighting their libertarian-progressive ideology. The party has progressive views on issues regarding migration and asylum and argues that asylum procedures should be concluded more rapidly, and that recognised refugees should be allowed to bring their families to Austria.

Methodology and Authors

How were the graphs created?

The graph above displays the positions the main political parties in Austria on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed on the basis of 30 salient issue statements related to strongly relevant policy issues in the current political debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and political (media) discourse. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “left-“ or “right-wing”, “libertarian” or “authoritarian”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “completely disagree”, to “disagree” to “neutral” to “agree” to “completely agree”. The positions of parties on these statements are coded in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances. All major parties were also asked to position themselves and provide excerpts from their party manifesto or other formal documentation. These self-placements of parties were subsequently compared with the expert coding. Discrepancies were communicated to parties over several rounds until there was full clarity and authorisation of their final issue positions.

The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise party position is located in the centres of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis.

Who realised the Strategy debates Austria 2017?

Text and Mappings:

Sandtra Fanto - MA Sociology and Media Science - Kieskompas BV

In cooperation with:

André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV

Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV

Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV

Project coordination:

Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

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