The General Election – Is it the Coalitions to lose?

The General Election – Is it the Coalitions to lose?

  • Coalition wants voters to concentrate on the battle for first place
  • Far and populist right looking for a message
  • What happened to the Green wave?
  • A 1% return on poster campaign & press coverage
  • New & smaller parties looking for a breakthrough


The Austrian parliament wrapped up its final session last Friday. The parties will now be focusing on their summer campaigns before the final push in September (polling takes place on the 29th September). So as we move into the next phase of election year here are the current national average ratings for the Parties based upon last five polls:

SPÖ: 27.2%,  ÖVP: 24.4%,  FPÖ 19.0%,  Greens 15.0%,  Team Stronach: 8.0%,  BZÖ 2.6%,  Others 3.8%

The percentage variation across these five polls:

SPÖ: 26%-28%, ÖVP: 24%-25%, FPÖ 19%, Greens 14%-16%, Team Stronach: 8%, BZÖ 2%-4%

As has been the case for the last few months, the polls are of a similar view on the current share of the vote for the FPÖ and Team Stronach. They continue to differ most often on the position of the Greens and BZÖ.


Grand Coalition

SPÖ/ÖVP: They have the headline they probably most want at this stage, the equivalent of ‘It’s a two horse race’. Currently, their combined strength is generating press coverage suggesting another Grand Coalition is the most likely (only) outcome. As such they are able to concentrate their efforts and they hope the minds of the voters on the question of who will be Number One and therefore lead the next governing coalition.

I’m sure both sets of strategists will be hoping that they can keep the ‘battle for first place’ running as the main story of the election campaign. It would fit well with their shared underlying message – stick with what you know and focus on who will make the best senior partner.

It’s all a bit down beat, no great attempt to win a significantly larger share of the vote by taking risks. If the vote share of the two Coalition partners does increase it’s likely to be a result of getting their core voters out in an overall low turnout.

The one risk at the moment, which has been highlighted by amongst others the Mayor of Vienna, is that if the ‘battle for first place’ becomes so aggressive it works against both parties. I note that polling data suggests that a continuation of the coalition of two is not the most popular option amongst voters, the ‘Grand Old Parties’ will need to argue carefully.

SPÖ: It’s been a bumpy year so far for the party. With the exception of Kärnten, this year’s State elections and referendum were not good news stories. At one time their polling figures were close to falling below the 25%. However, they have remained first in the polls all year and their current average is back to the same level as it was in January. What will concern their strategists’ is that their poll variations are again becoming wider, will their ‘safe pair of hands’ approach carry them to success or will voters start to slip through their fingers?

ÖVP: In recent months their polling figures have been the most stable of all the parties but their previous 2% points gain since January has become 1.6%. Yes it’s a tiny variation but they, like the SPÖ, have been dominating the headlines, pushing hard with the idea of  it being the ‘Year of the ÖVP’, and that first place is a real possibility. Their strategists may start to wonder whether they are trying to build momentum or hold on till Election Day.

Looking for a message

Data suggests the parties of the far and populist right are finding it difficult to reach beyond the minority of voters who poll categorise as ‘feeling excluded, or pessimistic, or insular’. Worse these votes are amongst the most likely to stay at home come election time and the less negative inclined to switch allegiance.

FPÖ: It’s managed to stop is freefall and nudged its average poll ratings back up by 1%. It’s traditional core messages ‘immigration, crime, Europe’ have failed to help it make any headway and even attempts to move on to key voter issues have done little more than stabilise the situation. The one positive for the FPÖ is that they finally seem to have benefited from the decline in support for Team Stronach. Where once they talked of first place and 33% vote share, now they are talking about a place in government with 20% plus. The reality is that they will be happy if they can maintain third place in the coming election. The 2013 election has already been written off, their strategists are trying to maintain support in the high teens, hoping that Frank and his Team Stronach will disappear after the election and then the FPÖ will have a clear run for the next general election.

Team Stronach: The Party has lost 2.6% points in the polls since January. Bizarrely, the TS seems to have been asleep for the last month or so and is only now launching its summer campaign. Either party strategists didn’t want to ‘peak’ too soon or they have been rethinking their plans and re-organising after a disappointing Spring. The party’s policy launches have suffered from easy attack from opponents and journalists – TS policy cycle is Frank says…journalist question…Franks says detail being worked on by committee….policy detail launched… journalist question…Franks says further detail being worked on by committee. Frank himself doesn’t do well in open interviews. Interestingly, the new campaign response to all this seems to be an advertising campaign based upon images of Frank and single words…..’Social Frank’….’Authentic Frank’. Oddly, this might actually be Team Stronach best strategy in the circumstances.

BZÖ: Much of Team Stronach’s support seems to come from people who voted BZÖ at the last election but subsequently switched to the FPÖ before also abandoning them due to the ongoing scandals. The emergence of Team Stronach stripped almost their entire remaining vote away – they have regularly been at 1% in the polls. The party will be relieved to see that they, like the FPÖ, have finally benefited from the drop in TS support – up until now the ÖVP has tended to be the beneficiary of any drop in Team Stronach’s poll ratings. But it’s a very limited gain with the BZÖ’s average poll rating only going up 1% since January to 2.6%.

The Right: All three parties are desperately looking for not so much a winning message but just a message that works enough to keep them in the game. That game for the FPÖ and Team Stronach is to gain influence in next parliament and deliver a fatal blow to the other. For the BZÖ the game is survival and their latest move has been to try to reinvent themselves as a ‘modern ÖVP’. However, it’s only a few weeks ago that some members of the BZÖ were offering ‘political asylum’  to right-wingers in the FPÖ who had lost the latest of that party’s internal power struggles.

What happened to the Green wave?

Greens: After a successful round of State elections earlier in the year the political headlines were dominated by the idea of a ‘Green wave’ which would sweep the party into power as part of a three way coalition. The reality is that the average poll rating for the Greens has increased by only 1% since January (though their current 15% is 4.6% higher than at the last election).  What’s significant is that in some polls they have passed the 15% mark – previously seen by many commentators as the ceiling for Green support. The worry for Green strategists will be that in the last two months while some polls have had them as high as 16% others have had them polling around the 12%/13% mark.

A one percent return on poster campaign & press coverage?

Billboard posters are a significant aspect of an Austrian election campaign.  While they clearly have a value in reminding voters of a party and a key message, I have often wondered how much impact an average poster campaign has on increasing voter support.

In the last few weeks the BZÖ has undertaken a big poster campaign which has coincided with the launch of their election list and the resulting additional press coverage. The posters have been widespread and had a clear message. The result of these posters combined with added press coverage would appear to be a mere 1%. Maybe poster campaigns are more for motivating existing support rather than for changing campaign fortunes. If that was true Team Stronach (see above) and others may need to think a little more creatively. I suspect the PR experts will tell me I’m wrong but it’s a thought.

New & smaller parties looking for a breakthrough

Parties not represented in the outgoing parliament and who want to compete in the September General Election are currently collecting the 2600 signatures from across the country needed to enable them to stand.

Of the new and smaller parties likely to be fighting the election two appear to have a chance of breaking through the 4% needed to enter parliament – the Pirates and Neos. They or any other would be challengers will need to start making an impact soon if they are to achieve a breakthrough:

The Austrian Pirate Party: It’s not much but after months of registering 1% in the polls (in which their support is specifically recorded) a poll this week had them at 2%. I would not normally mention such a 1% to 2% change in one poll but it comes at a time when the Pirates have had a higher degree of press coverage and the Snowden affair has raised the profile of what would be seen by voters as issues relevant to the party. It suggests, no more than that, that if the headlines provide the right opening then the Pirates may be able to secure enough attention to reach the 4%.

Neos – Still my number one bet for a party to break into the next parliament. Steady press coverage (though usually limited to the ‘quality Press’), growth of interest in such activity as the Party’s Facebook site, and the positive response from those who become aware of this new party, all suggest the chance is there. However, Neos is yet to make waves in the polls – where their support is specifically recorded it registers only at the 2% level. The challenge in the next few weeks will be for the Party to raise public awareness to a level where it can convert interest into hard support.



And what about the voters?

A few things I’ve noted about vote attitudes in recent polls:

1)      Austrian voters appear to be very positive about democracy in general but far less impressed with current party policies.

2)      More than half of voters say they already know who they will vote for and just over 20% appear to be undecided. But Party loyalty is far lower than ever before, so strategists would be careful about assuming that ‘decides’ are ‘firm’ support.

3)      A third of electorate may stay at home come the election based on recent survey findings. This is particularly true of current FPÖ, Team Stronach, and BZÖ supporters, which could further deflate their vote shares.

4)      Voters are far more likely to be optimistic than pessimistic about the future.





Quick guide to the Parties listed above:

SPÖ: Social Democrats – Broad left-centre party. National party structure with Vienna State as their traditional key stronghold.

ÖVP: conservative in the Christian Democrat mould. National party structure with strong rural base but increasingly weak in the Cities. Lower Austria State key stronghold.

FPÖ: Far-Right – Traditional beneficiary of the anti-establishment and populist vote. National structure but weak in most States. Former stronghold of Kärnten lost in State election and now only real stronghold in Vienna State.

Greens: Left-centre party. Traditionally weak national structure bolstered by recent election successes – now part of government in five States.  Vienna State remains most significant stronghold. Party in Vienna more Left in comparison to centrist leanings in other States.

Team Stronach: Populist-Right. New party still building its structures but well funded by its founder/leader, billionaire Austro-Canadian, Frank Stronach. Seems to be a very centralised party dependent upon leader who has to spend significant time in Canada to maintain residency status.

BZÖ:  ‘moderate’ Far-Right or Right-Wing Conservatives or Right-Wing Liberals. Originally, a breakaway from the FPÖ lead by Haider, the party has failed to find an identity or purpose since his death. No strongholds.

Neos: new Centrist Liberal party. They have a joint electoral platform with the Liberal Forum (LIF). Building party structure across the country, growing membership/supporters network, innovative in campaigning and public engagement, gradually developing finances to sustain electoral challenge.

Austrian Pirate Party: Left-centre party. Always keen to point out that they are more than an Internet party. More committed to ‘Liquid Democracy’ approach than their better known sister party in Germany.


Sources: Market/DerStandard 07-07-13
OMG/Kurier 07-07-13
Gallup/oe 07-07-13
Gallup/oe 29-06-13
Oekonsult/Mein Bezirk 28-06-13

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