It looks like 2013 will be the ‘big chance’ for one or more of Austria’s political parties, while the graveyard beckons for many a political career, as well as for one or two of the current list of parties. In front of us are four state elections, a national referendum, a Vienna referendum, and finally the General Election for the Federal Parliament.
As 2012 draws to an end the political foundations look shaken and the old assumptions no longer provide a clear guide to what the new Federal Government will look like after the 2013 General Election. Trust in Federal politicians has dropped in the last year, the ruling Grand Coalition is consistently polling below 50%, the traditional opposition parties are failing to make any significant progress, and none of the new political forces have yet to achieve a significant momentum.
The national referendum on replacing conscription with a professional army takes place on the 20th January. The issue is often seen by political commentators as a trial of strength between the two ruling coalition parties. If the polls are correct it will be first blood of the year to the (conservative) ÖVP as voters reject the switch to a professional army proposed by the (Social Democrats) SPÖ.
State elections matter
In Austria’s federal system the nine States have real power so local issues (and history matter). As such, the four elections this year will not represent direct reflection on the outcome of the national election (due in September). Instead the factors to watch for will be the changes in strength of support in key battle grounds, the switches in voter allegiances’ and the key campaign messages used.
A few pointers, party by party:
Lower Austria (the State with the largest electorate) will be the one to watch. The Party has an absolute majority, a popular Governor and a well oiled party machine. This could become a very bloody electoral battle. The announcement that Team Stronach will compete in the election and that Frank Stronach himself will be on the Party list (though won’t take-up a seat in the State parliament) has commentators talking about the possibility of the ÖVP losing its absolute majority.
It’s been reported that the ÖVP made it known that if Team Stronach stayed out of the Lower Austria election then the Party would ‘go easy’ on TS in the national election. As Team Stronach pose a greater threat to the FPÖ nationally than to the ÖVP this scenario has some credulity. However, Frank Stronach’s business plans in Lower Austria over the years have not always had the support of the Governor and ruling party and so it has been implied that Frank has additional motivations for competing in this particular election. On a more constructive note TS leading lights have been drawn from ÖVP defectors in Lower Austria (its different elsewhere) and Frank’s business history in the State makes it an attractive option for getting the first big election boost for his new Party.
Back to the blood. Press reports suggest that the ÖVP is now gearing-up for an all out assault on TS and Frank Stronach in particular. Its reported that amongst the lines of attack will be that Frank’s place of residence is Canada, business competence and issues of tax will be raised. Both Parties have big war chests with which to fund this encounter.
If the ÖVP maintain their absolute majority then this could encourage them to seek to have the General Election earlier than September. Unless TS do very well, we can expect the ÖVP line of attack on TS to be repeated by all the Parties at the General Election.
In Tirol the question will be whether the ÖVP makes progress in recovering its dominant position after the splits and divisions of the past. Again here the TS effect might be a factor as they are said to be in negotiations with the List Dinkhauser which took 18% back in 2008.
With the financial scandal in Salzburg the ÖVP have big hopes of securing first spot in the election. This in itself will only represent a moderate degree of success if they only secure top spot by maintaining their vote whilst the SPÖ vote (as currently expected) drops dramatically.
The ÖVP will expect little from the election in Kärnten where polls suggest the Party could finish in fourth or fifth spot.
The big chance for the SPÖ will be in Kärnten where polls suggest the Party has a real chance of taking first place. This would be a significant win for the Party if it could take advantage of the corruption scandals that have plagued the FPK. The latter is the sister party of the FPÖ and their defeat would be a significant moment, inflicting a serious body blow to the Far-Right a few months before the general election.
With the FPK on the ropes this should be a guaranteed win for the SPÖ in Kärnten. However, they face two new problems. While Team Stronach will be expected to scoop up significant numbers of FPK (and BZÖ) voters, they are lead by the high profile Mayor of Spittal and former SPÖ member, Gerhard Köfer, and may damage the SPÖ advance. The second threat comes from the Left with another former leading SPÖ member leading the new Left Alliance.
In Salzburg the SPÖ will be hoping that the damage from the financial scandal can be limited. Dropping from first to second place looks the most likely outcome and keeping the gap between them and the ÖVP down to single figures will probably be seen as a positive result.
Little will be expected of the SPÖ in the other two state elections.
Avoiding defeat for its sister party the FPK in Kärnten will would probably represent the best news for the Far-Right FPÖ. Corruption scandals have seriously damaged the FPK and polls suggest that they will be overtaken by the SPÖ. The loss of power in this tradition bastion for the FPÖ/FPK could further undermined the credibility of their General Election campaign – since January 2012 scandals have reduced the FPÖ average poll rating by 6.2 percentage points.
Any percentage increase in support for the Party in the other three states will be hailed by the FPÖ as evidence of their continued appeal and advance. However, they will be concerned to note the level of protest votes going to local Lists, Team Stronach, and other alternative options.
The four State elections will provide an indication of the degree to which the FPÖ is no longer the automatic depository for protest votes, how much they are being seen as one of the established (rather than alternative parties), and how small (or large) their core vote really is. (I estimate no more than 15%, their current national average polling figure is 20.4%).
It could be their big year with advances in State and Federal Elections. Since the last general election their average poll rating nationally has increased 3.4% – higher than any party which fought the last election. At State level progress looks particularly likely in Kärnten and at the national level they are achieving new highs in some polls of 15% – current average 13.8%.
The problem for the Greens may come in State Elections from the intervention of the new alternatives NEOS and the Pirates. Both parties believe that they can attract voters away from the Greens and secure support from those who might otherwise have switched from another party to the Greens.
A cautionary note for the Greens is that they probably should be doing better than they are. Although their vote reached new heights in the polls and all their opponents have had bad periods during the year, the Greens end 2012 on virtually the same average polling as they started – Jan ’12 13.6%/Dec ’12 13.8%.
Despite the continuous fluctuation in Party position between ‘Moderate Far-Right’ (in comparison to the FPÖ) and socially conservative/economic liberal, nothing seems to work. The Party looks destined to lose seats in all the elections this year and be ejected from the national and (most) State parliaments – Kärnten is probably the one State in which they will retain a presence.
With high profile candidates, a massive war chest, and averaging 10.8% in the national polls, Team Stronach are odds on favourites to be the ‘winners’ in the state elections – where they decide stand.
As described in the ÖVP section above, Lower Austria will be the most significant battle ground. The election will test Frank Stronach himself and a Party List with prominent ÖVP defectors against the ÖVP’s strongest party machine. Failing to secure a figure above its national opinion poll average would be damaging for the recently formed Party of the Austro-Canadian billionaire.
In Kärnten Team Stronach will be lead by the high profile Mayor of Spittal and former SPÖ member, Gerhard Köfer. It will be interesting to see if this ‘SPÖ’ version of Team Stronach also achieves above the national average and which of its opponents it more significantly damages.
It is unclear whether TS will compete in either Tirol or Salzburg. In Tirol they are said to be in negotiations with the List Dinkhauser which took 18% back in 2008, while in Salzburg the former BZÖ leadership of Team Stronach is said to lack the high profile needed for the Party to take to the field – the search is on for such a profile candidate to lead the List.
The threats to TS are that they fail to achieve the high expectations that come from the disproportionate level of coverage from which they are current beneficiaries. The elections will also provide their opponents with the opportunity to hone their attacks against TS in general and Frank in particular. The state elections will also make it more difficult to maintain the current party strategy of making only generalist/vague policy pronouncements supported by the caveat that ‘experts will look at the details’.
The Pirates have indicated that they will try to stand in all the State elections and will be competing in the General Election.
In the recent elections in Innsbruck and Graz the Pirates secured a single seat in each case. Securing representation in each of the four States would be a major boost to the Party which is currently achieving between 1% and 2% in most national polls.
Fighting the State elections could be a risk for the Pirates if the results confirm that they are unable to secure support at the 4% level which will be needed to enter the National Parliament at the General Election. But winning any seats in the State Parliaments would keep their challenge alive.
The elections may also give some evidence as to whether the Pirates are more of a threat to the FPÖ, the Greens or one of the other parties.
This newly formed Party drawing members and support primarily from Green, ÖVP, and Liberal backgrounds has yet to decide whether or not to commit its limited resources to the State elections or focus exclusively on the General Election.
If it does enter the State elections, securing 3% to 6% from a standing start, against establish party machines and richer competitors, would be a significant initial result. Greater exposure would assist the Party in making an impact at the General Election. But, like the Pirates, competing and not making an impact could destroy the national campaign before it starts.
The elections may also give some evidence as to whether NEOS can reach across the liberal, centrist spectrum and attract such voters away from the Greens, ÖVP, and SPÖ.