At 6 months, Austria's coalition support remains stable

Critics of the new government hoped that its actions would soon make supporters think twice

Photo: Photo: European Union Donald Tusk, European Council President and Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Federal Chancellor at Council's Europa building, December 2017.

Six months ago, on 18 December, the new Austrian government was sworn in. Its composition guaranteed international media attention: First, the 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, leader of the conservative People’s Party (OVP), became chancellor. Second, the radical right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) returned to power. Its long-term leader Heinz-Christian Strache became Austria’s vice-chancellor. Last year, not only the FPO, but also the OVP put restrictive positions on immigration and integration at the centre of its electoral campaign. The parties of the left proved unable to respond effectively – the Social Democrats (SPO) lost the chancellorship, while the Greens were voted out of parliament completely. The OVP and FPO agreed on a coalition agreement that focuses on liberal economic policies and measures to reduce immigration.

Six months ago, on 18 December, the new Austrian government was sworn in. Its composition guaranteed international media attention: First, the 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, leader of the conservative People’s Party (OVP), became chancellor. Second, the radical right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) returned to power. Its long-term leader Heinz-Christian Strache became Austria’s vice-chancellor.

Last year, not only the FPO, but also the OVP put restrictive positions on immigration and integration at the centre of its electoral campaign. The parties of the left proved unable to respond effectively – the Social Democrats (SPO) lost the chancellorship, while the Greens were voted out of parliament completely. The OVP and FPO agreed on a coalition agreement that focuses on liberal economic policies and measures to reduce immigration. The two parties did not have a tough time finding common ground – quite different from some other recent instances of government formation in Western Europe.

Critics of the new government hoped that its actions would soon make supporters think twice. The FPO was seen as a particular likely candidate for losing support – during its last stints in national government (2000-03; 2003-05), the party experienced electoral decline and eventually a party split. However, at the moment such expectations seem premature.

As expected, both parties continued to keep the issues of immigration and integration salient. In some instances, this focus was directly linked to welfare state measures. For example, the coalition agreed to lower minimal social security for individuals with limited or no German language skills. Moreover, parents who work in Austria will soon receive family allowances that are dependent on the living costs in their children’s places of residence. For many Eastern European citizens working in Austria this will lead to a substantial decrease in their disposable income. The government also reduced funding for integration measures. In addition, the OVP and FPO decided to shut down seven mosques which were accused of being close to ‘radical’ political Islam, and announced plans to ban children from wearing head scarves in kindergarten and elementary school.

Beyond immigration and integration, the ratification of CETA, an economic agreement between the EU and Canada, has been a surprisingly salient issue in Austrian politics. Even though the FPO had vehemently opposed the treaty while in opposition, in government the party voted in favour of ratification.

The FPO is now in charge of the ministries that provide political control over the police, army and intelligence agencies. Investigations against several officials at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism have caused huge controversy. The Minister of the Interior, Herbert Kickl (FPO), suspended the head of this intelligence agency, who was also under investigation.

The infamous ‘isolated cases’ of the FPO also made headlines. These ‘Einzelfalle’ are regular instances of racist, discriminatory, or otherwise highly controversial actions and statements by FPO politicians, or close relationships to individuals or groups engaging in such behaviour. For example, Udo Landbauer, a leading FPO candidate at this years’ regional election in Lower Austria, had been a key member of a fraternity whose song books included anti-Semitic lyrics. As a response to this and many other cases, vice-chancellor Strache installed a commission to examine his party’s history. However, party veteran Andreas Molzer has publicly stated that the commission is ‘primarily a tactical manoeuvre to get out of the headlines’ – and Molzer is a member of the commission.

After six months in charge, poll numbers indicate stability for the new government. Currently, Austria’s three biggest parties remain close to their election results from last year. The OVP is ahead, with more than 30 percent, while the SPO and FPO are close to each other, in most survey clearly below 30 percent. The individual politician who enjoys the greatest public trust is chancellor Kurz.

Beyond poll numbers, both the OVP and FPO have also fared reasonably well in the four regional elections since December 2017. The OVP easily held three of its regional governorships, while the FPO could increase its voting share in all four regional elections – however, in some instances less than the party had hoped for. Ironically, the SP?’s biggest success was expanding its hold over Carinthia, which used to be a long-term stronghold of the FPO.

One reason for the persistence of the new government’s popularity is its ownership of the immigration issue – a topic that continues to be of high salience in Austria.

Another reason, though difficult to measure, is the lack of open conflict between the two government parties – its key members have abstained from publicly criticising each other. This is in stark contrast to the previous ‘Grand Coalition’ of the SPO and the OVP, where both sides, but in particular the OVP, frequently attacked their ‘partner’. Now the OVP, including chancellor Kurz, mainly keeps silent on some of the controversies surrounding FPO politicians mentioned above.

On 1 July, Austria will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. During the Presidency, chancellor Kurz can expect even more favourable coverage than usual in Austria’s high-circulation tabloids, who will portray him as being at the heart of European politics. At the same time, the comparatively long time until the next important domestic elections, set for 2019 (the EP election and a regional election in Vorarlberg), might give his government additional room for manoeuvre.

Here, some political opponents also see an opportunity. They expect that further welfare state cutbacks and economic liberalisation will hurt the popularity of the OVP and FPO. But even if this is the case, the question on who might capitalise remains.

Beyond party politics, Austria is well-known for its relatively limited protest behaviour. A notable exception came in 2000, when the organisers of the so called ‘Thursday demonstrations’ managed to mobilise thousands of protestors over a period of weeks against the first OVP/FPO government. However, nothing similar has occurred this time. Protests against deportations of rejected asylum-seekers have been mostly limited to individual cases when social ties to the affected individuals have made activists out of citizens. What has generated the most opposition so far has been the reversal of the general smoking ban in restaurants. The ‘Don’t smoke’ initiative has received more than 500,000 declarations of support – at the beginning of October, Austrians will have the chance to officially sign the non-binding initiative. (abridged)

Manes Weisskircher is a researcher at the TU Dresden and at the European University Institute in Florence. The analysis  was originally published by EUROPP blog.

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