The Austrian 2017 Elections – Between A Rock and A Hard Place

The Setup

 

The result of the last general elections in 2013 brought a record low for the two dominant parties since 1945. Social Democrats though still the largest party of the land gathered only 26.8% of the vote and conservatives (ÖVP) fell to 24%. The far right FPÖ surged to 20.5%. Due to parliament constellation and lack of political will to work into any other direction the malfunctioning grand coalition was continued.

The conservatives entangled in an internal fight over the direction of the government and their own party elected Reinhold Mitterlehner to be their chairman and thus ousted Michael Spindelegger. Spindelegger represented the hard neo-liberal wing that wanted to find only the necessary common ground to keep the government alive and was replaced by Mitterlehner, a believer in the social partnership and a defender of the grand coalition. But the right wing of the conservative party reassembled and used their ministers in the government and their governors to sabotage any big legislation. This deadlock boosted the far right FPÖ to record levels of 33% in the polls. In the 2016 presidential elections for the first time since 1945 neither the conservative nor social-democratic candidate made it to the run-off. This deepened the internal crisis of the social-democratic party and weakened chancellor Faymann even more, resulting in a shameful scene at the traditional May parade on the Mayoral Square in Vienna, where thousands of party members protested his speech and forced the regional parties to push for his removal. After Faymann’s resignation, the successful manager of the state-owned Austrian Rail Way Company, was appointed and chancellor and elected leader of the social-democratic party.

 

The Rise of Sebastian Kurz and the Battle for Power

After two years as State Secretary for Integration, aged 27 Kurz became Europe’s youngest foreign minister. His rise in the conservative party was closely linked with Michael Spindelegger and the hard-lined neoliberal wing. The strategy of said wing, was to further sabotage the government and especially damage Christian Kern, in order to harm electoral chances. This was not done by Sebastian Kurz himself, but by bailiffs like minister for the interior Wolfgang Sobotka or conservative fraction chairman Reinhold Lopatka. This resulted in the unexpected resignation of Reinhold Mitterlehner in May of this Year. Kurz who has been circulated as the designated leader months before Mitterlehner’s resignation ended the coalition which resulted in snap elections. Kurz’ public image was meticulously designed to play to the far right’s voters, that have voted conservative in previous years. He presented himself as a strongman in closing borders and calling for the end of rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The Future of the Austrian Welfare System or what this election is really about

Silently both the conservatives and the far right have put out economic programs that matched in their intent to weaken worker’s rights and protection by destroying the current collective bargaining system and make huge cuts in the budget. The Austrian collective bargaining system is built on the obligated membership of employers and employees in the chamber of commerce respectively the chamber of workers. The ending of this obligated membership would mean that companies are not bound to the collective bargaining agreements anymore. Regarding the budget cuts the conservatives and the far right are not revealing their plans where they would be stinting 9 to 14 billion a year. It is clear that this would mean cuts in welfare programs, education and a change of the political culture of social consent to a political culture of permanent confrontation.

While the conservatives and the far right have been invested in a discourse about foreigners, refugees and EU border security, Christian Kern and Social Democrats have put social security and full employment at the center of the campaign and taken a stance against big multi-national corporations and their tax avoidance.

Polls have suggested that the self styled movement of Sebastian Kurz is already the winner of the elections, but as the UK and other recent elections have showed, polls are not as accurate as people like to believe. While the media depiction of the campaign was marked by the scandal about dirty campaigning by a firm hired by social democrats, the experience from campaigners on the streets is very different. There are three other small parties with chances to make it beyond the four per cent boundary to enter parliament: the greens, the neoliberal NEOS, and the anti-corruption list of Peter Pilz, a former member of the green party. So while we wait for the results of Sunday, on an election that will probably bring a coalition of shame between the conservatives and the far right, there has never been anything false about hope.

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