Only a few months after the presidential elections, Austrian citizens aged over 16 will vote on October 15 to elect the National Council, the lower house of Parliament. The country was originally supposed to go to the polls again in Autumn 2018, at the end of the natural 5-year cycle of the National Council. Unfortunately, the government – a grand coalition between the two biggest Austrian parties – collapsed last May over disagreements on tax reforms, leading to snap elections.
In the wake of a busy political year for Europe, especially due to the sheer number of elections taking place, it is no surprise that the upcoming Austrian one has ended up on the back burner. However, overlooking it could prove a mistake: not only is it a key player when it comes to implementing EU reforms, but these elections will also set the tone for the direction of the Union when Austria takes over presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2018.
There are 183 seats in the National Council, all assigned to candidates on the basis of open list proportional representation. There are 9 regional electoral districts, corresponding to each one of the Austrian federal states, and 43 further sub-constituencies on a local level. Each regional constituency is assigned a varying number of seats to be won, according to size and demographics. As well as submitting candidates for regional and local districts, parties also submit a national list.
Austrian voters can thus cast three preference votes in their ballot: one for a regional candidate, one for a local candidate, and one for a national party list. During the counting procedure, regional votes are counted firstly, then local votes, and lastly votes for the national lists. In order to elect representatives on a local and national level, parties must win at least one seat on the regional level. Moreover, to ensure that the allocation of seats is as close as possible to the votes share, there is an additional 4% threshold for parties to have representatives on a national level.
There are five main parties in the running for the National Council. The two main ones are the outgoing coalition partners in government: SPÖ and ÖVP. The first is a centre-left, social-democratic party which is consistently the best performing party in the country. Since 1945, it has been in opposition only for three terms, and has been the largest party in Parliament since 1970 (with the exception of the 2002-2007 term, when OVP took that primate).
ÖVP – also known as Austrian People’s Party – is a centre-right party founded on the values of Christian democracy and conservatism. This year, the party will not be directly running for elections, but backing Sebastian Kurz’s The New People’s Party, which runs on mostly the same political line.
The very young ÖVP leader has been witnessing a dramatic rise in popularity thanks to his charisma and excellent communication skills. ÖVP accepted his shrewd request to be solely responsible for the decision of who will join his list. This has given the impression of a breath of fresh air in Austrian politics, while actually pushing forth ÖVP policies.
Due to the recent tensions between the two parties which led to these snap elections, though, the possibility of continuing the tradition of SPÖ-ÖVP grand coalition governments has gone up in smoke. The most likely probability is that ÖVP will now rely on the Freedom Party (FPÖ) to form a government. In third place when it comes to votes share, FPO is a far-right party which has been seeing an increase in popularity in recent years thanks to its anti-immigration, Eurosceptic campaign.
Other fundamental contestants in the race, although not as popular as the other three, are the Greens (as well as one of its splinter groups, Peter Pilz’s list) and NEOS, a liberal centrist party founded in 2012. While there are a multitude of other parties running, both at a national level and in selected local districts only, their importance is limited, as they are unlikely to overcome the threshold or are not prospected enough seats to actually influence in the National Council.
The main issue in this election is the reason why it was called in the first place: tax reforms. The main parties disagree on how to fund tax cuts, as well as whether there should be tax cuts in the first place. Kurz and the ÖVP have promised tax breaks for companies that fill newly created posts with people registered as unemployed in Austria. On the other hand, SPÖ plans to revive inheritance taxes and impose new levies on millionaires to pay for lower income tax rates.
Immigration is another hot topic being discussed. FPÖ has adopted a strong anti-immigration approach and has promised a “zero immigration” policy. However, it is Kurz’s approach which seems to have gained the most consensus in the country: he has been the proponent of severe cuts to immigration by 2020, as well as closing the Balkan route, Muslim kindergartens and putting his weight behind the ban on Muslim veils. All measures which are quite similar to what the far-right is proposing, but the young man’s charisma has significantly swayed voters undecided between the two in his favour.
A lot of attention has also gone to European issues in the different parties’ manifestos, especially Juncker’s vision for Eurozone expansion as outlined in his State of the Union speech. While both Germany and France have been generally supportive of the plan to expand eastward the euro and have a border control free zone, most Austrian parties have been quite sceptical of the idea. SPÖ and ÖVP are instead divided over the topic of the creation of an EU army and implementing common security and defence policies: SPÖ has been outspoken in its dislike for this proposal due to the country’s neutral status, while ÖVP’s head of delegation in the European Parliament has spoken out in favour of it, especially given the recent unpredictability of the US.
Recent opinion polls see a 6-point lead of ÖVP (in its current form of The New People’s Party) over other parties, with 33% of respondents backing its very young leader. FPÖ is only slightly in front of SPÖ, with the two polling 27% and 23% respectively. The Greens, Pilz’s List and NEOS have been consistently lagging far behind with around 5% of the preferences each in polls.
As seems to be the trend in most European countries recently, the main concern is that the far-right FPÖ could reach its best results in years and end up being part of the government together with ÖVP. This seems quite inevitable, as the latter is unlikely to gain an absolute majority, even with Kurz’s rising popularity and charisma. In any case, the right-wing will be the overall winner in these elections, following the results in many other European countries this year, from the success of the German AfD to the re-election of the Conservative Norwegian government.