Election time in Austria

In three weeks there will be parliamentary elections in Austria. Interestingly, outside Austria nobody seems to care about this election and in fact does not even know that they will take place at all. This might not come as a surprise considering the small size of the country and its population and its insignificance on the global scene. However, also many Austrians are not particularly excited about this election. It rather offers the chance of “more of the same” although with the appearance of Frank Stronach a political clown has entered the scene.

On 29 September 2013, Austrian citizens over 16 years of age are allowed to vote for 183 parliamentarians that in turn will agree on a Bundeskanzler (or Prime Minister) who appoints her or his cabinet. Austria is a tiny country with 8.1m people in Central Europe that is lucky enough to claim the lowest unemployment rate in the EU. In political terms, Austria has a Westminster system in combination with a strong party whip (known as Klubzwang), thus parliamentarians are not as free as they want and should be in their decisions. So far, it’s always been the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) that dominated the Second Republic. Ever since the 1990s, these two parties have steadily lost in power while the right-extremist Freedom Party (FPÖ) established itself as a third force.

The main issues during the election campaign are important issues around the economy, education and the pension system. However, they don’t seem to tackle the big stuff. Education is still addressed through ignorant ideology of the main parties instead of providing quality education for everyone. The newly formed party of Frank Stronach appears to have the most ridiculous proposals like leaving the Eurozone or introducing the death penalty although it has been an absolute taboo to suggest such an absurd measure that is against any moral norms. On a more positive note, it is refreshing to see that immigrants and foreigners are not attacked as much by the FPÖ anymore as in the past, not least because of Sebastian Kurz, a 27-year-old Secretary for Integration. He was able to de-emotionalize and rationalize the debate on immigration; surely a gift in a country that has been poisoned with open xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

For the first time, the parties have a cap of how much they can spend during their campaigns. They are not allowed to spend more than €7m, although the newly established party of millionaire Frank Stronach might spend much more than this sum because this individual just has the money in his pockets. Watching some of the confrontations between the main candidates on TV, one can conclude that election time in Austria is not a particularly exciting time. The only good advertising that I have seen so far are the posters of the Green Party which are a mix of self-irony and delivering promptly their main issues: clean environment as well as “clean politics” as the Greens seem to be the only party in parliament that has not been involved in corruption scandals.

My own favorite choice is a party which has been formed last year but also merged with an older but basically inexistent liberal party, the Liberales Forum (LIF). The name of this new party is NEOS and their main issue is education but also a new pragmatic and liberal approach to politics with a mix of social liberal and economic liberal ideas. Moreover, an open and tolerant look into the world with a clear statement to be pro-European as their website is www.neos.eu. That I have to say is pretty awesome, because all the parties in parliament are lacking any kind of ideas towards Europe although the ÖVP and the Greens are traditionally pro-EU. And yet, because many Austrians are skeptical towards the EU, these parties don’t dare to address European issues. That is quite shameful because this will ultimately make anti-EU supporters stronger than they are.

Most polls see a victory of the Social Democrats (25-28%), in front of the conservative ÖVP (23-25%), the right-extreme FPÖ (17-20%) and the Greens with 13-15%. Frank Stronach might get 7-10% although his statement about the death penalty might reduce his outcome by 1-2%, votes that potentially could strengthen the FPÖ. The party of late Jörg Haider, the BZÖ is most likely to disappear from the political scene and won’t make the 4% hurdle to get into parliament. However, I hope that NEOS will make the hurdle although the polls only predict 2-3% and many voters are afraid to “lose” their vote to a party that has not a chance to get into parliament anyways. Such kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is of course weakening the case of NEOS but I hope that a liberal party with a pragmatic approach will re-enter the political scene in Austria. Most likely, the elections will continue the current coalition between SPÖ and ÖVP. Overall, the spectrum in politics is moving more towards the right, a trend that we have just seen in Australia and most likely in Norway as well as in Germany.

Overall, it might also be good that Austria is not making the headlines anymore – in comparison to the year 2000 with a rising Jörg Haider and the fear that Austria would be ruled by Nazis again when the FPÖ entered into a coalition with the ÖVP. Now, not many people observe what is going on in Austria. Maybe it is a good sign because things run quite smoothly. However, many things would need and should be criticized, not least from abroad that this country is on track for the future. Hopefully, there is going to be more attention from abroad on this small republic in the Alps.

Update 9/10/13: Sebastian Kurz is not Secretary for Immigration but Secretary for Integration as a friend rightly pointed out.

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