Grand coalition is a marriage of convenience for Austria’s ailing duopoly

Like their German neighbours, Austrians go to the polls at the end of this month to elect their national representatives. As with most well-established democracies, Austria has a major party of both the centre-right (the Austrian People’s Party – ÖVP) and centre-left (the Social democratic Party of Austria – SPÖ). Unlike many of its counterparts, however, Austrian government since 1945 has been characterised by grand coalitions formed by these two parties, who in the past have together controlled more than 90% of the seats in the Austrian parliament. The current grand coalition is led by SPÖ Chancellor, Werner Faymann – and this doesn’t look likely to change after the election.

Austria’s 2008 Federal Election results

This year, the ‘duopoly’ may not even receive the backing of 50% of Austrian voters, as the Austrian party system continues to fragment, most visibly on the right. Like its counterparts in other parts of Europe, Austria’s Greens (The Green Alternative) have a formidable parliamentary presence, winning 20 seats in the last election in 2008, and they are also polling even strongly (at around 15%) this time around in the opinion polls.

Both the SPÖ and the ÖVP look set to poll lower than they have previously, continuing the long term decline in the support for these two major parties. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), an historic ‘third party’ in postwar Austrian politics, has splintered over the past 10 years, however they still hold 34 seats in the Austrian parliament and look set to maintain a similar number this time around. The splinter party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), and new outfit Team Stronach led by Austrian-Canadian billionaire, Frank Stronach, will have contrasting fortunes. The BZÖ, founded in 2005 by former FPÖ leader and government Minister Jorg Haider, seem set to lose the bulk of their seats to Stronach’s party – which stands on a distinctly anti-system and anti-Europe platform.

The FPÖ still suffers from the perception among sections of its formerly faithful voters that its far-right platform was watered down by the participation in government with the ÖVP at the turn of the millennium. Over the past decade therefore, for those of us who study political parties and European government, this has resulted in a fascinating fragmentation of the Austrian far-right.

So what will the Austrian government look like after the vote? It seems as though the SPÖ are set to remain the largest party, although they and the ÖVP have been embroiled heavily in corruption scandals recently – compounding their electoral decline and the weakening of the duopoly that has in many ways been maintained by the cartelization of politics in Austria. Despite the weariness of the Austrian electorate towards its government, it seems likely that the government that forms after 29 September will be another, by now not-so-aptly named grand coalition, probably lead by the SPÖ once more. An alliance of the left between the SPÖ and the Greens would still struggle to command a majority in the legislature, and that is assuming that any such alliance would have the full backing of the two parties’ were it to be a plausible majority outcome.

What may well emerge then is a tired grand coalition, which will leave Austrians questioning the way politics is done more so than when the FPÖ matched the ÖVP for seats in 1999, bringing forth an alliance of the centre- and the far-right which made leaders in neighbouring European democracies uneasy. The FPÖ might play their part once again, but with its own hand in recent scandals, and the Greens the stage really is set for more of the same. How  another marriage of convenience will affect the waning popularity of Austria’s shrinking political giants is likely to be the main focus of analysis after the election.

Merkel will be Chancellor, but in what government?

There has rarely been a more likely largest party outcome in a German Federal election than that predicted for the poll later this month. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently polling in the early 40s in most opinion polls of likely voters, with the Social Democrats (SPD) trailing back at 25-30% in the latest polls.

The CDU’s current coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), a liberal ‘third party’ and historic kingmaker in German politics, may struggle to reach the 5% threshold or 3 Bundestag seats required to give them a share in the proportional allocation of seats in Germany’s mixed-member electoral system. Approximately half of the Bundestag’s Members are elected by the same method as we are accustomed to here in Britain, the other half are distributed proportionally to those parties clearing either threshold via national party lists.

The right-of-centre CDU and the business-friendly FDP have long been natural bedfellows and have entered into numerous governments together since the Republic was founded in 1949. However, the FDP are feeling the rough side of being the junior partner in a coalition government. Having been involved in all but 2 governments formed between 1949 and 1997, the FDP now – and especially since German Unification – have considerable competition from smaller political parties on the left – most notably the Greens, for the role of coalition kingmaker.

The Social Democrats haven’t enjoyed sweeping nationl appeal since being replaced by the CDU in 2005 as the largest party, even though the two parties governed together in a grand coalition between 2005 and 2009. At the last election in 2009, Merkel extended her party’s lead and returned it to its more natural alliance with the FDP. However, with the considerable fall in popularity of the FDP since 2009, and the rise and rise of the Greens in national as well as regional elections, there is talk of an historic CDU-Green coalition, which would command a parliamentary majority. Merkel has always responded cooly to such speculation, and a wonderful quote from one of her colleagues perhaps summed up the likelihood of such an outcome: “can you really see Angela Merkel in dreadlocks?”

I would not be astounded by a CDU-Green coalition,  for stranger things have happened in politics (and German regional politics is home to a diverse range of coalitions). However I still think that another CDU-FDP coalition (Merkel’s preferred option) will ultimately prevail, just. i say this even though there is apparently some public appetite for a grand coalition between the two largest parties for the third time in the Republic’s history.

This is Merkel’s election to lose. The safe ‘Manager’ of Europe’s largest economy is also a safe electioneer, and the SPD, under Peer Steinbruck, lacks much of a kick, or a particularly effective opposition to Merkel’s CDU. They seem a long way from the heady dream days of a left alliance – when the SPD and the Greens governed between 1997 and 2005. All that said, keep an eye on the vote in Europe’s powerhouse later this month, the outcome will shape the direction of the EU over the next four years, and depending on the mathematics, the negotiations in the government formation process could be very interesting Indeed.

Leading an Opposition, finally

(c) The Guardian

If last week’s vote in the House of Commons on the Government motion for UK intervention in Syria showed anything, it is that parliamentary democracy is alive and well and operating in the Westminster. The Prime Minister is absolutely correct in his assessment that the British public is war-weary, and that it does not want to foot the bill, or the body count, that another Middle Eastern war may bring.

When the Parliament votes against the government of the day, especially when that government commands a majority, not only does this provide an unmissable opportunity for political journalists to go into hyperdrive, it also gives provides an excellent case study into the present workings of parliamentary democracy.

Much has been made of Ed Miliband’s behaviour in the days leading up to last week’s vote, and he has been accused in some quarters of flip-flopping on the issue of offering support for the motion to join the US in a Syrian intervention – at first apparently offering his support to the Prime Minister, then cooling that support, before withdrawing it. One much-quoted Conservative source referred to Mr Miliband in the hours after the vote late in the evening of 29 August as a “copper-bottomed shit”, rather ironically mimicking the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker from the satirical series The Thick of it.

Unfortunately for Mr Miliband, the cynical observer would find it difficult to call his performance anything short of a U-turn, which seemed to be based on the initial premise that supporting action in Syria would make him look tough on chemical weapons, tough on the causes of chemical weapons…and when it became clear that the British public, and vast swathes of his own MPs, were not supportive of military intervention – he U-turned.

The assessment that the Labour Leader making political meander across the piste is a fair one, but it is also fair to note that in the end, Mr Miliband – as the leader of the Opposition – did his job. He did so in two ways, first he listened, and was responsive to, the fears and concerns of his party and the public (albeit after making the mistake of coming out too strongly in the first place in support of a government motion that had little rhyme or reason to begin with).

(c) The Guardian

The Government was guilty of assuming, almost automatically as has been the way since the 1990s and the beginning of the era of humanitarian intervention Blair-style, that we would intervene side-by-side with ‘our closest ally’ as fait accompli. Haunted by the spectre of an illegal war in Iraq, Parliament was faced with it’s first exercise in displaying any fabled lessons learnt. Mr Miliband (who was not even an MP when the House of Commons voted to invade Iraq in 2003) was particularly determined in his position that MPs must wait to receive the report of the team of UN Weapons Inspectors in Syria before any decision on military intervention could reasonably be made.

It was in this last regard that Mr Miliband performed his task as Leader of the Opposition most robustly, demanding clear evidence linking the Assad regime to the chemical attacks which resulted in the tragic deaths of so many civilians in Syria. Not only that, but he also demanded a plan from the Government that went above and beyond strike now, work the rest out later. It was a demonstration that the House of Commons still holds the Government to account.

Of course, this leaves more questions than answers for the future not just of British intervention overseas but also for the timeline of action in Syria itself. For all the snide remarks that Britain isn’t a necessary ally in any intervention from US Secretary of State, John Kerry, President Obama has nevertheless scheduled a vote in Congress next week (although he has no obligation to do so), to display to the world that he has the support of US political representation behind him.

Ultimately however, the timing of the vote in Parliament last week was a key indicator that the Prime Minister believed that he had the votes to guide the motion through – that, on some fundamental level, we simply had to engage. As it turns out, he was incorrect. Ten years after the vote to enter the illegal war – times have changed, Prime Minister. Welcome to the game, Mr Miliband.