Austria is a country located in the region of Western Europe. After the 2017 election, ÖVP and FPÖ entered into short-term government cooperation. Already after a year and a half, the coalition erupted when the Vice-Chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache were forced to resign following a devastating scandal, which eventually toppled Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his minority government. But Kurz returned in early 2020 at the head of a new coalition government, this time between the ÖVP and the Greens.
The refugee crisis in Europe in 2015 intensified the contradictions in Austrian domestic politics. Right-wing populist forces were further strengthened in connection with the crisis. Their xenophobic message echoed: they painted a picture of non-Europeans as a threatening force that would flood the country and place unhealthy demands on jobs and welfare. At the same time, growth in the economy was weak and reforms of the education system, among other things, had been postponed in the future. The then ruling “big coalition” between the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), led by Chancellor Werner Faymann of SPÖ, was facing increasing problems.
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Austria, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
Austria’s geographical location placed it in the middle of the migrant stream: between east and west and on the road from the Balkans to northern Europe. After the summer of 2015, the number increased, so that tens of thousands soon arrived in Austria via Hungary. Most of them wanted to move further north to Germany. But by the end of the year, almost 90,000 had sought asylum in Austria, which already belonged to the countries that received the most refugees in terms of population.
Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann was at first sharply critical of Hungary’s handling of refugees, who were transported to camps in the neighboring country, pending eviction. Faymann advocated a humane refugee reception. But like many other politicians in Europe, he made a complete reversal as the pressure continued to increase. In early 2016, the government, in several steps, decided on restrictions on how many asylum applications that Austria would accept, and plans were launched to introduce border controls. The government worried about a new wave of refugees from Libya via Italy, after the route via the Balkans and Greece was closed. To a large extent, it was ÖVP who pushed for stricter rules and saw it as necessary in light of the continued growing support for FPÖ.
First round of the 2016 presidential election
However, when the first round of the presidential election was held in April 2016, it became evident that the government parties lost voter confidence. By far the most votes, 35 percent, got FPÖ’s candidate Norbert Hofer. He was followed by the Green of Alexander Van der Bellen and an independent candidate. SPÖ’s and ÖVP’s candidates came first in the distant fourth and fifth places respectively.
Shortly thereafter, Faymann announced that he would resign as both Chancellor and Party Chairman because he had not SPÖ united behind him. Within the party there was a group that wanted to depart from the hard line that excluded all government cooperation with the FPÖ, while a left wing was critical of the stricter asylum and immigration policy. An outsider was appointed as new Chancellor and SPÖ leader: Christian Kern, former head of the state railway.
The prospect that a representative of a right-wing populist party with roots in Nazism could become head of state in Austria attracted attention abroad, and many saw it as a change in the playing field for Europe as a whole. Nevertheless, the reactions were more cautious than when the FPÖ joined the government in 2000.
The presidential election is redone
The fears also appeared to be unjustified when the second round of elections was held in May 2016. Van der Bellen won, albeit with only 31,000 votes. But the FPÖ appealed against the decision and in July, just a week before the new president would take office, the Constitutional Court declared that there were so many mistakes in dealing with postal votes that the second round of elections had to be redone.
The election, held on December 4 after being postponed once due to substandard glue on the election envelope, became a clear victory for Van der Bellen. The result was received with the relief of many governments in Europe, who were worried that the wave of right-wing populism that had recently swept across the continent would gain further foothold in an EU country.
However, cooperation problems in the government continued. In May 2017, the ÖVP leader and vice-chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner resigned and were replaced by 30-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who had made a quick career within the party. Kurz wanted elections to be held already the same year instead of 2018 as planned. A few days later, Chancellor Kern announced that elections would take place in October.
ÖVP wins the 2017 parliamentary elections
With Kurz as the new party leader, ÖVP’s popularity has increased and the party has gone over FPÖ which has long been the first in opinion polls. ÖVP, like FPÖ, wants to limit immigration. At an election debate in September 2017, ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz and FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache both addressed immigration as the biggest problem in the country. Kurz has highlighted that he is open to government cooperation with FPÖ. SPÖ stands for a softer line and emphasizes the importance of integrating immigrants into society, instead of, as SPÖ leader Kern expressed it, “blaming all problems on them”.
In the parliamentary elections on October 15, ÖVP became the largest party with just over 31 percent of the vote. SPÖ managed to take home second place, but the lead to FPÖ was small. FPÖ increased by more than 5 percent compared to the 2013 election and the result was the party’s best since 1999. Five days later, President Van der Bellen, the ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz was commissioned to form a government. A few days later, Kurz invited FPÖ to talk about a possible government cooperation.
The negotiations were delayed but in mid-December the same year Kurz presented a coalition government with ÖVP and FPÖ. Kurz became Chancellor of the United States while FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache was named Vice Chancellor. The posts as Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense went to FPÖ. New Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who was not a member of the FPÖ but was nominated by the right-wing party. The ÖVP politician Hartwig Lögen became Minister of Finance. The opposition expressed concern that FPÖ, through the Ministry of the Interior, gained control of both the police force and the security service. Around 6,000 people demonstrated in central Vienna against the new right-wing government.
The coalition government is cracking down
Government cooperation, however, quickly came to be characterized by problems and scandals linked to FPÖ. Already after about a year and a half, in May 2019, the coalition between ÖVP and FPÖ burst. Then Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache from FPÖ had to resign after a video was circulated stealthily filmed in a luxury villa in Ibiza while promising a woman, who claimed to be a wealthy Russian investor, state business contracts in exchange for FPÖ receive support in the 2017 election. Heinz-Christian Strache was also replaced as FPÖ leader by party colleague Norbert Hofer.
After the so-called Ibiza scandal was discovered and Strache resigned, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that ÖVP’s cooperation with FPÖ would cease. Shortly thereafter, Kurz and Federal President Alexander van der Bellen agreed that a new election should be held in September. Van der Bellen also approved Kurz’s plans to dismiss Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, also party secretary for the FPÖ. After the announcement, all the FPÖ ministers left the government. Kurz then formed a minority government consisting of the ministers from the OVP and a number of independent experts.
Despite the government crisis, the OVP was by far the largest in the European Parliament elections, with about 35 percent of the vote at the end of May. But the electoral success was not enough for Kurz’s technocrat government to retain power. Already on the day after the election, the government was rejected by Parliament. The FPÖ members of the lower house made joint action with the left opposition SPÖ and the small party Jetzt and voted in favor of two declarations of confidence, one against Chancellor Kurz himself and one against the entire government. That the FPÖ turned against its former coalition partner was seen as a revenge for the party being forced to leave the government following the Strache scandal.
In early June, an expedition government took office with the chairman of the Supreme Court Brigitte Bierlein as Chancellor. The new government consisted of various experts and would govern the country until parliamentary elections have taken place. ÖVP and Sebastian Kurz led opinion polls ahead of the September 29 elections. Not least, it was Kurz’s continued restrictive attitude to immigration that made him popular with right-wing voters.
The 2019 re-election
It went as the opinion polls predicted in the parliamentary elections. The victory for Kurz and ÖVP was surprisingly large. The party strengthened its support among the Austrians and won another nine seats. However, the former coalition partner FPÖ lost a full 20 seats in the National Council. The Ibiza scandal was believed to be behind the big tap. The Social Democratic SPÖ became the second largest party, but made its worst choice in many years. The Greens succeeded in re-entering Parliament after running for election two years ago.
After the election, the ÖVP started negotiations with the Greens to establish a new government. Negotiations became lengthy and it was not until the turn of the year that it was clear that government cooperation would begin between the parties. Thus Sebastian was able to continue as Chancellor of a coalition government in which the Greens participated for the first time. The party would lead an environment ministry where infrastructure issues and energy will also be handled. In addition, the party was responsible for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Justice. ÖVP received the other ministerial posts in the government.
The two parties have agreed to strive for Austria to become one of the leading countries in Europe in terms of climate work and the government also aims to implement a tax reform, which will combine both the OVP’s promise of lower income taxes and the greening demands for increased environmental taxes.
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READING TIP – read more about Austria in UI’s web magazine Foreign
magazine : Populism in Central Europe threatens deeper EU cooperation (2018-11-06)
FACTS – POLITICS
Republic of Austria / Republic of Austria
republic, federal state
Head of State
Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen (2017–)
Head of government
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (2020−)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
People’s Party (ÖVP) 71, Social Democrats (SPÖ) 40, Freedom Party (FPÖ) 31, Greens 26, NEOS 15 (2019)
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
People’s Party (ÖVP) 62, Social Democrats (SPÖ) 52, Freedom Party (FPÖ) 51, NEOS 10, Peter Pilz List (8) (2017)
76% in the 2019 parliamentary elections, 73% in the 2016 presidential election
parliamentary elections 2024, presidential elections 2022