Austrian Election: Total Victory for National Populists

In one of the last major elections for a European country in 2017, the Austrian legislative election has given a massive boost to the rising National Populist forces across the continent.

In the race for the country’s 183-seat National Council, the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has come in a comfortable first place, as widely predicted by opinion polls.

The right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) -- despite opinion polls predicting it would come in second place -- has also made gains while remaining the third-largest party overall.

Initial exit poll results had the ÖVP in first with just under 31% of the vote, and actually showed the FPÖ in second with 26.8%, to the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPÖ)’s 26.2%. But additional exit polls switched the FPÖ and SPÖ, putting the left-wing party at 27.1% while the right-wing party was at 25.9%.

Despite the FPÖ not advancing to second place, this election is still a resounding victory for the National Populist forces for several reasons.

First, this marks the FPÖ’s second-best result in their entire history - at 51 total seats earned and 26.5% of the vote overall - only behind their 1999 total of 52 seats and 26.9%.

In addition, as has repeatedly been noted, the ÖVP has shifted from a more center-right party to a decisively right-wing party; after former ÖVP leader Reinhold Mitterlehner resigned in early May, Foreign Affairs Minister Sebastian Kurz took over.

Upon doing so, he immediately rebranded the party and shifted it further to the right on the key issues of immigration and Islam, as well as other issues such as taxes and the European Union.

This right-wing shift in both the party’s and the country’s Overton Window was most recently reflected by a nationwide ban on the Islamic burqa, which went into effect at the beginning of October.

This move clearly sought to reach out to the same type of voters who would normally vote for the FPÖ, which has maintained a similar hardline stance on Islam and immigration for many years now, and has risen in popularity as a result. In last year’s presidential election, FPÖ nominee Norbert Hofer had the best performance by an FPÖ presidential nominee in Austrian history, when he came in a solid first place in the first round with 35%.

In the second round, he narrowly lost to Green Party nominee Alexander Van der Bellen by 0.6%. The Constitutional Court of Austria, analyzing the razor-thin margin, concluded that there had been enough fraudulent ballots to justify a re-vote.

However, Hofer lost the re-vote by a larger margin of 7.6%, when all of the other major parties coalesced around Van der Bellen to shut out Hofer.

Despite this, and the largely meaningless and symbolic nature of the office of the President of Austria, the result was nevertheless a shocking turnaround for a party that many consider a “fringe” element in Austrian politics.

The trend seemed to continue, when the FPÖ dominated opinion polls for the legislative election from mid-2015 up to early-2017, only recently falling out of first with the rightward shift of the ÖVP.

However, Kurz approached his rightward shift in a manner that was much friendlier to the right-wing party, while also very much turning the movement into a personal referendum on his potential leadership.

The 31-year-old Kurz -- technically a member of the Millennial generation -- is on track to become the Chancellor of Austria, which would make him the youngest world leader (even younger than France’s Emmanuel Macron, himself 39 and the youngest French head of state since Napoleon), and the first Millennial head-of-state in history.

But first, Kurz must form a coalition government that will guarantee a parliamentary majority.

To this end, unlike many other major European parties, Kurz’s ÖVP has actually been much more welcoming to the FPÖ and is very likely to form a coalition with them and their leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. As such, upon Kurz taking over the ÖVP, the previous governing coalition -- a “grand coalition” between the SPÖ and ÖVP --collapsed shortly after Kurz’s decisive right-wing shift.

That collapse of the government was the main reason this legislative election was called for October of 2017, when it was originally supposed to be sometime in 2018.

With these additional factors taken into account, it should come as no surprise then that the SPÖ -- despite remaining in second place -- just had its worst result since Hitler’s reign.

This was their lowest vote percentage ever, just slightly lower than their total of 26.8% in 2013; but in that election, the SPÖ at least managed to remain in first place, whereas this cycle saw them fall to second.

With the very likely prospect of being shut out of power, this will be only the fourth time in the party’s history that it will be an opposition party.

For the last 72 years, the SPÖ has been in opposition for just 11 years, following the four-year periods after the elections of 1966 and 2002, and the three-year period following the 1999 elections (when the FPÖ had their highest percentage ever). Excluding the 2002 cycle, the SPÖ has consistently been the largest Austrian party since 1970.

In one other significant development, the Austrian left has suffered another major defeat besides the decline of the SPÖ. The left-wing Green Party -- the fourth-largest party, and the party of incumbent president Van der Bellen -- has failed to cross the minimum 4% threshold to qualify for representation, for the first time since their very first election in 1983.

The loss of all 24 seats -- which was its highest seat total ever -- is by far the worst loss for any party in this election.

Votes are still coming in, and there are numerous absentee and mail-in ballots remaining to be counted over the course of the next few days.

These votes may be enough to put the FPÖ into second place after all, solidifying the likelihood of a right-wing government.

But the message has clearly been sent, just as it was in Germany one month ago, and in other countries throughout 2017 such as the Netherlands and France: the National Populist wave that started several years ago, and peaked with Brexit and Trump, is not losing momentum anytime soon.

You can follow the author on Twitter: @EricLendrum26

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