Austrian voters say we are ‘not on the side of the big battalions, but of the best shots’

Or to put it another way, a lot of Austrian voters seem to think its desirable to have many small parties in the next Parliament. According to research carried out for der Standard newspaper, 47% of those surveyed believed that parliament would be more representative with many small parties representing diverse opinion.

Almost as many, 43%, believe that fewer parties in parliament would be better. Currently, there are  six parties represented in the Austrian parliament. Five of which are expected to secure seats at the election in September. The sixth, the BZÖ, has been averaging 2% or lower in the polls for over a year and a party needs to reach the 4% threshold to enter parliament.

To me this research provides further evidence that voters are not only frustrated with the current options but also more inclined to think in terms of party programme combined with who that party would be most like to join with in forming a coalition. Polling data from the recent four State elections would appear to support the idea of a more selective electorate influenced by perceived party competence, programme relevance, and potential coalitions. Interestingly, we now have 3 way coalitions at State level for the first time and Austria’s (current) fourth largest party the Greens, look set to increase its involvement in State government to five out of nine States, if discussions go as forecast.

For new parties outside parliament such as NEOS and the Austrian Pirates, both of whom are currently under the 4% threshold, these developments will increase their expectations and strength of arguments in the run-up to the General Election in September. For the new grouping in the current parliament, the party of billionaire Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach, Team Stronach, these finds may explain why the party is stuck below 10% in the polls despite disproportionate press coverage and multi-million Euro funding. A vague populist platform, internal party strife, and reluctance to engage in a future coalition, are going to limit your reach and limit you to a battle with the FPÖ for a shrinking pool of voters.

As for the big battalions they will need to balance the ‘big party stability’ argument with a greater willingness to talk about different coalition options. For the SPÖ and ÖVP this will mean a stand up fight for who will be the largest party, while talking up the benefits of the Grand Coalition stability, and at the same time  being more willing to talk about alternative coalition combinations greater than two. The latter they seem to be increasingly doing in the aftermath of the four State elections earlier this year.

The headline is a partial quote from a somewhat famous Frenchman. I’m a bit of a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Shape’ novels and have always like this extract from ‘Shape’s Enemy’:

Richard Sharpe: No wonder Harris reads Voltaire. Listen: Dieu ne pas pour le gros battalions, mais pour sequi teront le meileur.

Teresa: God is not on the side of the big battalions, but the best shots.

Richard Sharpe: Not bad for a Frog, eh?

The use of the Rifle as a skirmishers weapon (Napoleon preferred his skirmishers to use traditional muskets) by the British and the subsequent development in the use of Rifle Regiments was an example of technology and flexible thinking changing the established norms for campaigning – in this instance the Napoleonic Wars.

A much more peaceful question is which of the  small parties have the potential to be the ‘Riflemen’ at the coming election – able to respond coherently to a fragmenting, sceptical, electorate; and adaptable to the changing campaigning environment in which new networks may be as important as traditional associations in engaging and motivating support? Or are any of the ‘big battalion’ parties able to develop their own ‘Riflemen’ capable of creating new electoral constituencies and once more build a broad electoral base? Voters are more volatile than ever, willing to consider other option or simply stay at home. When the dust settles after Election Day it will be the new ‘best shots’ and not the big battalions who will have, I suspect, ‘won the day’.



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Filed under Austrian Politics, Politics

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