While the economy of Austria, the small alpine country that is home to manifold global institutions, but also international spy rings, appears to be in good shape, its democracy is not looking so sharp ahead of crucial elections next year.
Austria is not short of challenges. Much of the West has kicked Russian gas to the curb in the past year. Meanwhile, Austria’s energy giant OMV continues dutifully purchasing the hydrocarbons that help finance the Kremlin’s brutal war against Ukraine.
The changed long-term security environment in Europe has thinkers questioning the country’s neutrality, once mandated by the Soviets. Austria has also been one of the main proponents of reforming the EU’s migration framework, a crucial process for the bloc.
Tackling these challenges is a major undertaking that will ask much of the political parties involved. It is thus ill-timed that Austria’s democracy appears to be going through a mid-sized crisis ahead of the autumn 2024 parliamentary election.
Fateful tidings were wrought in 2017 when centre-right golden boy Sebastian Kurz ascended to the government throne – taking the far-right into government with him.
At first, the far-right FPÖ seemed to have been tamed by the dominant presence of Kurtz’s Christian Democratic ÖVP, but this ill-fated alliance broke down in 2019 following the far-right’s attempt to trade government contracts for favourable media coverage.
But the show must go on and Kurz, now somewhat damaged golden boy, went on to govern with the leftist Greens. Still, past misdeeds, committed during his grab for power, quickly caught up with him and much less known Karl Nehammer took over the party, and the government.
Few saw this coming – Nehammer himself was ranked 11th on the ÖVP‘s party slate in the 2019 elections.
But the spectre of their former golden boy continues to haunt the ÖVP to this day. Kurz regularly invites journalists for backroom talks, attends party events, comments on policy, and gives interviews.
Will he or won’t he make a public bid to return to power? Kurz says he does not want to.
ÖVP leaders seem nervous. Kurz’s erstwhile mentor, Erwin Pröll, recently told him to stay away. The party base remains loyal to Kurz – too ready to blame his fall on clumsy political mistakes instead of on the corruption and manipulation he is charged with.
Yet, somehow, the centre-left manages to be in even worse shape.
The SPÖ, established when the Qing dynasty still governed China, bullied party leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner into retirement. Another mark on the reputation of the once sturdy party.
A drawn-out leadership contest waged by migration hardliner Hans-Peter Doksozil culminated in a raggedy membership vote for who should lead the party – prompting far-left challenger Andreas Babler to enter the race.
The outcome, a vote split three ways, damaged the party and left it deeply fractured, with Doksozil winning by a hair’s breadth.
Another deeply damaged party is the pink-coloured NEOS, a newly established left-of-centre party that sought to shake up Austria’s political debate with its 2012 founding.
While the party polls at around 10% on the federal level, its grassroots structure and support in the nine Austrian states – each with their own administration – is weak. The lack of established party structures, and members willing to volunteer and canvass, saw the party take a loss at several state elections.
In Salzburg – a rich and urbanised state rife with their core electorate – the party didn’t make it past the 5% treshold for parliament. Could the same happen in 2024? Current polls suggest otherwise, yet the party historically struggles to translate support into votes.
Above it all looms far-right leader Herbert Kickl, formerly interior minister under Kurz. Once famous because of his penchant for equine police forces, the hardliner has managed to consolidate his party.
With Kickl, the self-styled “people’s chancellor,” at the helm, the far-right FPÖ regularly trends at around 30% of the vote. The fact that “people’s chancellor” was a Nazi propaganda term reserved for Adolf Hitler does not appear to perturb his electorate.
Kickl’s FPÖ favours lifting sanctions on Russia, has protested against Ukrainian President Zelenskyy addressing parliament, and regularly eyes a possible exit from the EU.
The far-right already governs alongside the ÖVP in three of nine Austrian states.
In Salzburg, the rich, educated and urban part of the centre-right gave way to the far-right. What is stopping the federal ÖVP from doing the same following the 2024 elections?
President Alexander Van der Bellen, the largely ceremonial arbiter of Austria’s constitution, has signalled his wariness in the face of such potential political outcomes.
When a right-wing coalition assumed control in Lower Austria in March, he said: “Many people in Austria, and not only here, will look very closely at how your provincial government behaves.”
The world, he thinks, looks at the country with some anxiety. Van der Bellen could be in a position to bar the FPÖ from office, triggering a major political crisis. Is Austria all but destined for democratic malaise?
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Look out for…
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]