October 1, 2019
VIENNA — A few minutes after 5 p.m. on Sunday night, the volume in the ballroom of Vienna’s Kursalon music hall was nearly deafening.
As supporters of Sebastian Kurz’s center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) looked on, a big screen on stage had begun showing the first early projection in Austria’s snap parliamentary elections. When the number for the ÖVP appeared there in the party’s signature turquoise—37.2 percent, considerably higher than expected—cheers erupted throughout the room. Hoisting signs and banners in the air, many began chanting, “Chancellor Kurz! Chancellor Kurz!”
“I’m overwhelmed and almost speechless,” the young party leader told the crowd shortly after. “We were voted out as a government in May, it was a difficult four months—and today the people voted us back in.”
It had indeed been a difficult few months for Kurz: In May, a major scandal involving his coalition partner, the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), caused the collapse of their government, triggering snap elections. At the core of the scandal was a leaked 2017 video of FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache on the Spanish island of Ibiza, offering up valuable government contracts in exchange for election help from a woman he believed was the niece of a Russian oligarch. Kurz’s ÖVP was also hit with accusations of improper campaign spending this summer, and internal party documents were leaked after an apparent hack.
But less than five months after the Ibiza story broke, the ÖVP proved Sunday night that it is undoubtedly the dominant force in Austrian politics, and that the strategy that first brought Kurz victory in 2017—a combination of personality-driven politics and a right-wing course on immigration—is clearly still effective among the Austrian electorate. As a result, Kurz is virtually guaranteed to enter the Chancellery again—although whom he will opt to govern with remains an open question.
The ÖVP and Greens would have to overcome significant policy differences to govern together, while a majority of the electorate voted for right-of-center parties.
With 37.5 percent once the votes were mostly counted, the ÖVP was more than 15 points ahead of its closest challenger, the weakened center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), who dropped to a historic low of 21.2 percent. The Greens, who had fallen out of parliament in 2017 due to low support, also emerged from Sunday’s vote victorious, capitalizing on increased interest in climate issues to win 13.8 percent.
The FPÖ, on the other hand, fared considerably worse than expected: The party took in 16.2 percent of the vote, nearly 10 points lower than in 2017. Interestingly enough, it seems the result had less to do with the Ibiza scandal than another round of bad headlines for Strache in the final days of the campaign: Austrian media reported that as party leader, he had a lavish expense account that he used to enrich his lifestyle. Although the party had recovered from Ibiza over the summer, polling at only about one percent lower than its pre-scandal average, the late-breaking second scandal clearly had an impact.
“In my view, this is no clear mandate to continue this coalition,” said a subdued Harald Vilimsky, the FPÖ’s leader in the European Parliament, shortly after initial projections came in Sunday night. Instead, he said, the party would prepare for a “new start.”
When I arrived at the FPÖ election-night event across town, held in a traditional Austrian restaurant and biergarten in the middle of the city’s Prater amusement park, the mood was nearly as gloomy as Vilimsky. Supporters sat at outdoor tables nursing beers and chatting among themselves; it wasn’t until a band began playing a few hours later—and people had had a few more beers—that the crowd began to enjoy itself.
“This is a huge disappointment,” Reinhard Havlik, an ardent FPÖ supporter from the nearby town of Tulln an der Donau, told me as his teenage son ate a bowl of goulash next to us. “The Freedom Party ran a good campaign… That it was so poorly rewarded by the voters is a shame.”
The latest allegations against Strache were ultimately far more damaging than Ibiza, Havlik said—adding that he had urged the party to formally kick Strache out as soon as the Ibiza scandal broke. “Of course Strache was our biggest problem,” he said. “Now, with the expenses—something like that is really bad for the electorate. When it’s about money, people are sensitive.”
However, others echoed what I’d heard throughout the month: that every party suffers such scandals, so there’s no reason to desert the one that otherwise best represents one’s interests. “Every party does the same thing,” said Mario Misch of Vienna, a former SPÖ member who started supporting the FPÖ about a decade ago. “You can find that in the [SPÖ], you can find that in the [ÖVP], you can find that in the [Greens].”
Some FPÖ voters, like Misch, weren’t particularly perturbed by Strache’s actions. And others still—like a woman I spoke with who said she hopes he runs in next year’s Vienna state elections—stand by him proudly. But Sunday night’s results proved to be a final straw for many die-hard party supporters who see Strache’s actions as the reason their party has lost so much influence. Strache’s Facebook page, long his best tool for building up political support, was flooded with comments from disappointed FPÖ voters blaming him for the poor election result.
After party leaders wouldn’t rule out barring him from the FPÖ, Strache announced Tuesday morning that he would leave the party anyway and seek no future political office. (With Vienna’s elections on the horizon, long a political dream for Strache, it will be interesting to see whether he sticks to that statement.)
With election results nearly finalized, the biggest question that will likely occupy Austrian politics for months to come is: With whom will Kurz build a coalition?
The Greens’ impressive comeback and the ÖVP’s strong result have made a partnership between the two mathematically possible, something no one would have believed feasible before election day. That potential led to immediate speculation that Kurz will opt to partner with the Greens, in acknowledgement of the growing prevalence of climate issues.
But Markus Keschmann, a political consultant who has worked with and for the ÖVP on election strategy, cautioned that the ÖVP and Greens would have to overcome significant policy differences in order to govern together—primarily on migration and climate issues—noting that a majority of the electorate voted for right-of-center parties.
“Forming a coalition can’t just be about what’s ‘sexy,’” he said. “The ÖVP’s gains came primarily from FPÖ voters—and they voted for, in addition to Sebastian Kurz the person, the policies of a center-right government.”
For an ÖVP-Greens coalition to work, he added, “it will take more than a ‘sexy factor’—it will take, more than anything, trust on both sides, clear projects and understanding for each others’ positions.”
Other possible coalitions for Kurz involve partnering with the center-left SPÖ; again with the FPÖ; or opting for a three-way alliance with both the Greens and liberal Neos.
Joining the SPÖ seemed unlikely even before election day, given long-standing animosity between the two parties. With the SPÖ’s historically low result, it’s hard to see why Kurz would be interested in pursuing that option. And while a renewed coalition with the FPÖ would be the easiest ideological union, the hard-right party’s poor result also makes such a union less likely. FPÖ leaders have already unanimously indicated they intend to rebuild in the opposition; if they consider partnering with Kurz, they’d likely have to give some major concessions. As for a so-called “dirndl coalition” with the Greens and Neos (so named for the parties’ three colors, turquoise, green and pink, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen a dirndl precisely that color), squaring vastly different policy positions among the three would hardly seem less complicated than doing it among two.
Kurz, for his part, said he would be open to talking with all parties. He has also said he wants a coalition focused on “center-right” politics, however, which would be difficult to achieve with either the Greens or the SPÖ.
Of the several possibilities on the table, all seem complicated and unlikely to pan out. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what government Austria will ultimately get—and how many months it will take to get it. Considering the potential options and long path ahead, I think back to what Keschmann told me a few weeks before the election, which definitely still holds true today: “No matter what, the coalition-building process will be more exciting than the election itself.”