Two more polls in March, combined with research into voters attitudes, paints a picture of worry and/or alarm for each of the five Parties currently with seats in the national parliament here in Austria. Below I take a look at Austria’s main centre left Party, beginning with the challenges it faces in securing its vote but then considering its biggest problem….realistic coalition options.
The SPÖ (Social Democrats)-more to the centre or the left?
Headline voting intentions in the latest Gallup poll has the senior partner in the government coalition, the SPÖ (Social Democrats), neck and neck with the far-Right FPÖ on 28%, while the recent Hejek survey for ATV has the coalition Party two points ahead of its far-Right rival (29% to 27%).
The good news for the SPÖ is that it continues to retain first spot in both polls and in my running average of polls below – it still has around the same level of support as it received at the last General Election.
However, the Party is seen by the majority of voters to have been the losers in the coalition negotiations which led to the newly established austerity budget, despite being the larger of the two governing Parties. For some years now (especially in urban areas) the SPÖ’s major battle has been and remains with the FPÖ which with the benefit of opposition (and inclination) is populist; has no compunction in playing the race card, and positions itself as an anti-establishment party. There is little evidence from the polls that the SPÖ is making any progress in recapturing votes from the FPÖ and the national coalition with the conservative ÖVP isn’t helping – although in the Austrian state of Steiermark the same ‘grand coalition’ partnership (but one seems to which works much more closely together) appears to be a popular administration.
If the Party can’t win back support from FPÖ, nor attract undecided voters, what else could it do? Well it could look to draw left-wing & liberal inclined voters away from the Greens. The problem however is that these groups are amongst the strongest anti- FPÖ voters and attracting their support complicates the Party’s positioning in its struggle with FPÖ in urban working class areas. The other alternative is to target the centrist & liberal voters of the ailing conservative ÖVP. This too presents difficulties as such courting risks further alienating the left of the Party and a significant proportion of its core vote.
With modest poll ratings for the SPÖ Party leader and Chancellor (equivalent to the Prime Minister in the UK) and with voters viewing the austerity budget as lacking fairness (67% feel the burden is not distributed evenly across the population), the opportunities for the SPÖ to push its poll rating up into the mid 30’s look limited. Additionally, there appears to be increased grumbling from the Party’s left-wing about the direction of the SPÖ, whilst there also seem to be some Party members arguing for a tougher – more populist line – to counter the far-Rights attraction to sections of the traditional SPÖ vote.
Traditional assumptions and bargaining chips
Like any party in a coalition the SPÖ needs the whole government to be seen as a broadly effective and successful partnership, though I would suggest that this is less so than say in a UK context. Austria has had ‘Grand Coalitions’ for a large part of its history and there is more of a tendency to view different parts of the government as ‘belong’ to red or black (the Social Democrats and conservatives have generally retain control of the same ministries). General government competence and partnership working combined with distinctive ‘wins’ from ‘your’ part of government are the formula that traditionally determines whether red or black will dominated the new coalition after each election. Unless of course you have a realistic alternative potential coalition partner, something that gives you either a different option or a powerful bargaining chip.
In the world of proportional representation and coalition politics the voter needs to have a clear/positive idea of what you stand for and that you have the ability to deliver at least a reasonable proportion of your programme in government, without compromising your core principles (or taking a more cynical view, ensuring you support your core voters interests). This isn’t a major problem if you are a party with 40%+ of the vote in a grand coalition or voters have a positive view of the political process. It is, however, a rather significant problem if you have less than 30% of the vote, voters are cynical of all Parties, and you have only one possible coalition partner – who themselves have other potential options. This is the underlying issue for the SPÖ. They currently have no realistic alternative coalition partner and therefore find themselves continually defined by their relationship with the conservative ÖVP.
The ‘natural’ partner amongst the Parties represented in parliament would be the Greens, though this could cause a few difficulties because of the attitudes of some sections of the SPÖ towards their progressive rivals (in UK terms similar to the hatred/mistrust some parts of the Labour Party have always had towards the Liberal Democrats, especially when the latter is displaying its more radical progressive tendencies). In respect of future national co-operation, one positive sign is the current red/green coalition experience in running the state government here in Vienna which some are highlighting as evidence that the Parties can work successfully together. Vienna is the first Austrian state in which such a coalition has ever operated, though it should also be noted that the left-wing Greens have also worked in coalition with the conservative ÖVP in other states. However, the practical problem for the SPÖ is that the Greens are stuck at around 13% of the vote and so the two Parties are a long way from being able to form a majority government after the next election.
Another option for the SPÖ would be to look at creating a three Party coalition which included the ‘more moderate’ far-Right (or some would argue ‘Conservative right-wing’) BZÖ either in a red/green/orange or red/black/orange combination. On the face of it such an option would only be contemplated to generate a majority coalition. But the BZÖ in its short life has projected itself as far-Right ‘lite’, Liberal, Conservative, and FDP without the social elements. It might be a curious counter weight for the SPÖ (as largest Party) to use in its dealings with the second coalition partner – stranger things have happened in politics. However, it is questionable whether the BZÖ will be able to reach the 4% hurdle needed to enter parliament again based on its current average poll ratings.
Of course, in theory, the SPÖ could seek to form a coalition with the Party that has (in part) a similar pool of voters (in fact a significant minority are ex-SPÖ supporters), the far-Right FPÖ. However, the Party has a strict policy of non co-operation and although a few voices are said to question this, it would be a major earthquake in the Republics politics for such a coalition to be seriously considered, let alone to be formed.
Thus to summarise the SPÖ’s current position; first in the polls, but seen as failing to deliver for or inspiring its base (which it’s just about holding on to), unable to reach out to other voters without alienating its base further, and no options other than ‘grand coalition’ with the conservatives.
Below is my updated state of the Parties table based upon an average of the last five polls I’ve seen: