Austrian General Election 2017 Preview

This Sunday 15th October, the Austrian people will head to the polls for a general election. This snap election was called in May following the resignation of vice-chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner of the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP). The incumbent ‘grand coalition’ of the ÖVP and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), led by current Chancellor Christian Kern, had stagnated as the two parties failed to resolve disagreements regarding a number of policy issues. This, along with increasing concerns related to the migrant crisis, led to a large increase in support for the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPÖ). Mitterlehner was replaced as the leader of the ÖVP by Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister. This marked a turning point in the fortunes of the ÖVP as Kurz successfully rebranded the party in his own image; he renamed it The New People’s Party and recruited a number of new candidates for the election. Polls showed an immediate jump in the party’s popularity of around 10% and it has maintained high approval ratings as we approach the election. As a result, The New People’s Party is now poised to become the largest party in the Austrian Parliament. However, the nature of Austria’s electoral system means that the most likely outcome is a coalition government.

Who is Sebastian Kurz?
At just 31 years of age, Sebastian Kurz looks set to become the world’s youngest leader when the election takes place this Sunday. His political career began when he was elected Chairman of the ÖVP’s youth wing in 2009 and he served on Vienna’s city council from 2010-2011. In the 2013 general election, he was elected as a member of parliament, winning the most direct votes of any candidate. He rose to prominence shortly afterwards when he became the youngest serving Foreign Minister in the world at age 27. In 2015, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, his calls for increased controls on migration saw him named as one of Europe’s most influential politicians by news website Politico. The manner in which Kurz has rebranded his party, along with his meteoric rise, has led to comparisons with France’s similarly youthful leader, Emmanuel Macron, and his ‘En Marche’ movement. His campaign for this election, based on promises to reform Austria’s economy and immigration policies, has been well received and The New People’s Party currently sits atop the polls at around 33%.A good friend of Ireland, Kurz is a leading figure in Fine Gael’s European family the European People’s Party having risen through the ranks of the Youth of the European People’s Party, much like our own Leo Varadkar. Understandably the pair know each other well and worked already on a number of issues together.

Austria’s Electoral System
There are two houses in the Austrian Parliament; the National Council (Nationalrat), with 183 seats, is significantly more powerful than the Federal Council (Bundesrat), which has 61 seats. The upcoming elections are for the National Council. The electoral system is based on the principle of proportional representation, which aims to ensure that the number of seats won by a party will closely reflect their share of the vote. This means that, much like in Ireland, it is difficult for any one party to win an absolute majority and, normally, governments take the form of coalitions.
Austria is divided into nine provincial electoral districts and, within those districts, there are a further 43 regional districts. Voters will choose their party of preference and will in addition indicate a preferred candidate in both their provincial and regional districts. Votes are counted in three stages; the regional votes are counted first, followed by the provincial votes and finally, the national party votes, which ultimately dictate the share of the seats in the National Council. To be able to have candidates elected at provincial and national level, parties must first win a seat at regional level. The leader of the party with the most seats in the National Council usually becomes Chancellor.

Potential Coalitions
Depending on the results of the election, a number of coalitions are possible. As mentioned above, polls suggest that Sebastian Kurz’s New People’s Party are likely to form a large part of the new government but it is more difficult to predict which other party or parties would make up a coalition.
Some commentators have suggested that the most probable scenario is a coalition of The New People’s Party and the FPÖ. The success of Kurz’s campaign has largely been based on how he has navigated the key issue of immigration. His proposals to restrict immigration have largely quashed the support of the FPÖ, which has campaigned on a principally anti-immigration platform. Conversely, Kurz’s emphasis of this issue has possibly made the FPÖ his most plausible option to form a coalition. In addition, while the SPÖ is currently outperforming the FPÖ in the polls, the unpopularity of the current grand coalition of the ÖVP and the SPÖ means that a return to this arrangement is unlikely.
Another possibility is a coalition between The New People’s Party and a number of smaller parties including the Greens, the left-wing Liste Pilz party and The New Austria and Liberal Forum party. However, polls suggest that even a combination of all three of these parties would be insufficient to form a workable coalition. This is a problem for the SPÖ, as this would likely be their preferred option were they to win the election. Possibly for this reason, the SPÖ recently lifted a 30 year ban on working with the FPÖ.

Senator Neale Richmond is the Fine Gael spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann