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.

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