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Four things we just learned from Austria’s elections

Yes, Austria is feeling the “Greta effect.”

Sebastian Kurz is Austria's former chancellor and head of the country's People's Party. (Helmut Fohringer/AFP/Getty Images)

One big thing is clear after Sunday’s snap election in Austria: Sebastian Kurz not only survived a scandal but also seems back on top of his game.

The former Austrian chancellor scored a clear election victory only four months after a video sting ended his coalition with the far right. His conservative People’s Party exceeded poll estimates and won 37.5 percent of the vote.

The Social Democrats took 21.2 percent — the party’s worst-ever result since 1945. The far-right Freedom Party suffered a sharp blow and received 16.2 percent of the vote, down from 26 percent in the 2017 election.

Who polled particularly well in Saturday’s election? Austria’s Green Party staged a spectacular comeback with 13.8 percent of the vote, its best result ever. And the liberal party, the NEOS, continues to gain, claiming 8.1 percent of the vote — its best showing since its founding in 2012.

Austrians vote Sunday — with a major corruption scandal in the background

What are the political implications of the Austrian vote? Here are four takeaways:

1. Sebastian Kurz holds power

Kurz and his People’s Party appear unscathed after the Ibiza video scandal involving Heinz-Christian Strache, party leader of the Freedom Party, which was coalition partner to the People’s Party. The video from a villa on the Spanish island appears to show Strache offering government contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Indeed, according to the Austrian research institute SORA, Kurz’s party won 258,000 votes directly from the Freedom Party. This suggests that disenchanted far-right voters saw the conservative People’s Party as an attractive alternative.

Kurz copied the far right’s narrative and moved the conservative party to the right by adopting a hard line on immigration. Centrist parties losing ground in many other European countries may see this an option in their own campaigns.

2. The far right self-destructed

Conversely, the far-right Freedom Party suffered immensely. As various polls and research findings by SORA indicate, this wasn’t primarily due to the Ibiza scandal.

Polls conducted shortly after the Ibiza news broke suggest that Freedom Party support slipped six points from its original 26 percent but then stabilized at about 20 percent during the past few months. This shows that the party managed to keep the fallout of the Ibiza scandal largely in check.

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But fresh allegations emerged days before the election, suggesting Strache may have abused his party’s expenses account for private purposes. Prosecutors have launched an investigation into allegations of embezzlement, though Strache denies any wrongdoing.

While the Freedom Party was able to downplay the Ibiza scandal as just a “drunken story,” the allegations of fraudulent expenses did not go down well with Freedom Party voters.

Some analysts say the embezzlement claims significantly tarnished the image and credibility of the Freedom Party as a party that traditionally has defended Austrian identity and a sense of homeland (Heimat) but also the Austrian welfare system for the underprivileged, what Austrians call the kleiner Mann.

In the wake of this latest scandal, Strache announced on Tuesday morning his “total withdrawal from politics and public life,” giving up his membership with the Freedom Party.

3. Austria feels the ‘Greta effect’

SORA data show that support for the Greens came primarily from young people under the age of 29, and that climate change was their main motive. This suggests the impact of young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has reached Austria, similar to the impact she has had on politics in Germany, Ireland and France.

“Fridays for Future,” inspired by Thunberg, hold regular demonstrations throughout Austria. The biggest of these demonstrations took place just two days before the snap election.

4. The Social Democrats failed to provide convincing answers

For the Austrian Social Democrats, with their worst-ever result since the end of World War II, the election was particularly bad news. This is the party that has produced the chancellor for the majority of governments in the Second Republic.

The party’s losses are, however, in line with other European countries such as Germany, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands, where support for social democratic parties has also declined.

According to SORA, the Social Democrats lost the majority of their voters to the Green Party, suggesting they failed to communicate their policy goals effectively.

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The party is also split between a left-leaning faction, formed around party head Pamela Rendi-Wagner, and a more right-leaning group that argues for a tougher policy toward migrants. The party is thus divided on the pressing question of migration that other parties, notably the People’s Party, have answered more decisively.

Some commentators also say the social democratic ideology has reached a dead end and that the party has failed to adapt to the needs of the working class. As the analysis by SORA reveals, 48 percent of Austria’s working class voted for the Freedom Party, and a meager 23 percent for the Social Democrats.

What will happen next?

Now comes the tricky part. Kurz will need a coalition partner to form a stable majority in the 183-seat Parliament. He has the option of working with the Social Democrats, the Greens or, once again, with the far right. Experts expect coalition talks will continue for weeks, perhaps at least until the end of the year.

Theoretically, if all three options fail, Kurz could also form a minority government, an option he has mentioned several times. There is only one precedent in Austrian history: Chancellor Bruno Kreisky led a minority government from 1970 to 1971.

The Freedom Party probably will end up in the opposition, with Norbert Hofer, the party’s head, declaring Sunday evening that the 16.2 percent vote share is “no mandate for a progressive entry into coalition talks.”

The Social Democrats remain a possible partner, but this seems less likely. Having ruled together in a grand coalition most of the time since 1945, the People’s Party and Social Democrats might not be too keen to renew such an alliance. The general public largely perceive the grand coalition as prone to infighting and incapable of finding enough compromise.

Forming a coalition with the Greens on the national level would be a novelty for Austria. In 2017, the Greens didn’t win any seats and Werner Kogler took over the party leadership.

Just two years later, Austria’s Green Party has a realistic chance to enter government for the first time. But much will depend on whether the People’s Party and Greens see a way to compromise on such key issues as migration and taxation.

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Stephanie Liechtenstein, a freelance journalist and diplomatic correspondent based in Vienna, studied history of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She writes on Austrian politics, multilateral diplomacy, foreign and security policy, international organizations and East-West relations. Follow her @StLiechtenstein.