The Austrian elections are over and Sebastian Kurz’ conservative ÖVP has come out on top. The night ended in bitter tears for the socialist SPÖ, which lost nearly 6% and booked its worst ever result in history at 21,2 %. The only upside? In 2017 the far-right FPÖ was close to beating the SPÖ into third place. But this time around, the FPÖ has lost 10% and fallen back into third place and chased by a resurgent green party Die Grünen.
Die Grünen could very well be proclaimed the victors of the elections, as they bounced back from their disastrous 2017 result of 3,8%, which got them kicked out of parliament. With a new team behind them, they garnered 26 fresh seats an 13,8% of the vote; only 2,4% behind the FPÖ. They also annihilated their offshoot party JETZT (formerly known as Liste Pilz), which had previously ensured their demise. JETZT only gained 2% of the vote and thus lost all seats in parliament.
Not only that, but the greens also managed to beat the liberal party NEOS, which had dominated them in the polls from October 2018 until June 2019. But the NEOS don’t have to feel bad either. With 8,1%, they achieved their best ever result at a national election and attained a 50% increase in seats.
There are three clear winners and three losers in this election. But the form of the next government is yet unclear. There are four options on the table and none of them seem particularly likely.
There is the option of renewing the last conservative-nationalist coalition or to return to a grand coalition between the ÖVP and SPÖ. Another two options are a conservative-green government or an alternatve version with the liberals acting as a third weel.
Austria’s political system has been put through the ringer over the last few years. We can safely say, it all started at the turn of the century, when Wolfgang Schüssel of the ÖVP broke 50 years of cooperation with the SPÖ and entered into a coaltion government with the FPÖ under Jörg Haider (despite finishing second in the elections).
After two failed attempts at a government with the far-right, which caused numerous scandals from which the republic is still recovering today, the system of the grand coalition was reinstituted to avoid any further altrications with the far-right.
Sebastian Kurz grew up in a time, when the far-right resurged from 6% back up to the top of the polls and the grand coalition became somewhat of a caretaker government. Instead of governing the country, the coalition was happy to just sit back and watch, while people got angrier and more frustrated and flocked to the far-right. The grand coalition was a coalition of the lowest common denominator: stay in power; protect the status quo.
Kurz vowed to change this. As soon as he was appointed as the new leader of the ÖVP, he decided to blow up the grand coalition and call for new elections. The ÖVP and SPÖ have been on bad terms since then, to say the least. That is why a new attempt at a grand coalition following these elections is very unlikely. It is not Kurz’ style; not his programme. He is also fully aware that he was elected, partially, because of his promise to end the grand coalition and to move things forward.
Kurz is no friend of the far-right. But after the 2017 elections, he had two options: Either continue with a grand coalition as before and risk plummeting in the polls, while the FPÖ gains more seats, or go into a coalition government with the far-right and hope for better options next time. He chose the latter.
Kurz has been likened to Wolfgang Schüssel in the past. Much like Schüssel, he has managed to revitalise a dying ÖVP. Even his campaign slogans are similar. That is why some experts, like the political scientist Peter Filzmaier, have predicted that another version of the conservative-nationalist coalition could very well happen.
When Schüssel’s first coalition with the FPÖ fell apart, due to a personal scandal in the ranks of the FPÖ (much like Kurz’ coalition did now), Schüssel bided his time and eventually managed to get another coalition going for a short period of time. During that time, the FPÖ had already lost a lot of seats in new elections (as they have now) and had been marginalised in the new government. The same could happen now.
It does not help that on election night the Greens started torpedoing coalition talks by making anti-capitalist statements and throwing shade at Kurz on live television and on Twitter. At the same time, the FPÖ has declared it is preparing itself for opposition work and die Grünen have now made clear that while it will not be easy, they will start talks with the ÖVP about a possible coalition.
While very unlikely, the liberal party NEOS will play any part in the next government, it may be easier for Kurz and his ÖVP to come to a coalition agreement with both the Greens and NEOS, as NEOS and its policies are situated in the centre between the two and could very well help them find their common denominators and focus on those, rather than insisting on issues that neither die Grünen nor the ÖVP would be able to accept.
In the end, it will be up to Sebastian Kurz to decide how he wants to govern Austria for the next (hopefully) five years and his decision will speak volumes about him and his true interests.