Austrian elections: the start of a green revolution?

Gains for the greens and losses for the right-wing populists were unexpectedly pronounced. It is now up to Sebastian Kurz whether the result will translate into a greener politics.

Last Sunday, Austria’s parliamentary elections created a minor political earthquake which might eventually reshape the country’s ideological orientation.

Former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his conservative OEVP were able to defend the first place and achieve an impressive lead over all other parties. The greens – having been kicked out of parliament in the 2017 elections – made a remarkable comeback and gained more than ten percentage points. The international agenda, favouring action against climate change, and party leader Werner Kogler’s down to earth appearance have now made the greens an attractive and numerically feasible coalition partner.

Meanwhile, the populist right-wing Freedom Party FPOE suffered from the impact of an expenses scandal and lost a quarter of their 2017 vote share to non-voters and Kurz’s OEVP. The socialists came second, but achieving their worst result in the party’s postwar history they had nothing to celebrate.

After having fulfilled everyone’s expectations by winning the elections, the real challenge for Kurz starts now. How, and with whom, does he want to govern during the next five years? To his inconvenience, the two most likely directions could not be more different.

To the left…?

The mainstream media has made its choice: give it a go, and go for green! A similar constellation has never been attempted on a nation-wide level in Austria, hence the prospect of a green conservatism or conservative environmentalism appeals to many.

In fact, this is the preferred coalition for a majority of Austrians – as a poll revealed this weekend – yet ideologically the cooperation of conservatives and greens would be a big stretch. If Kurz’s hardliner stance on immigration and Kogler’s environmentalism are to be reconciled, either of the two will have to compromise and necessarily disappoint parts of his electorate.

Another, more centrist option for Kurz could be to attempt a “grand coalition” with the socialists – after all the second biggest party in Austria. Such coalition would however go against Kurz’s “new style” approach, breaking with the traditional party arrangements of the past decades in Austria. And more importantly, he and socialist leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner are said to have deep aversions towards each other. A challenging basis for five years of cooperation, to put it mildly.

…or to the right?

Alternatively, Kurz might find his future junior coalition partner on the far-right side of the political spectrum, even if the FPOE denies any ambition to the country’s leadership. “Our party needs to restructure, and it needs to do so in opposition”, leader of the FPOE Norbert Hofer declared on Sunday night, only hours after the party’s disastrous results were made public. Several other senior party figures have echoed his position since.

Still, some journalists and political scientists believe that a Kurz-Hofer government is the most probable outcome. Conservatives and populists have the greatest ideological common ground, thus their coalition could work more smoothly than with the greens.

Moreover, the access to power and political influence might seduce the Freedom Party to aspire after seats in Kurz’s cabinet despite internal calls to go into opposition. Austria’s governing parties traditionally decide who gets to fill the nation’s top jobs: in railways, social insurance companies, the central bank, public museums and many other institutions. Is the right ready to give up such might after two years in government?

The winner’s dilemma

Sunday’s winner, Kurz, finds himself in an unenviable position. Not only does he face several months of tough negotiations, but he can already be certain that his new government, even if joined by the greens, will not be able to match the current transitional government’s popularity. Nominated following the Ibiza scandal and the breakup of Kurz’s first coalition with the FPOE, the technocratic cabinet spearheaded by former constitutional judge Brigitte Bierlein enjoys unprecedented levels of public trust.

Will Kurz choose what’s favourable (the greens) or what’s rational (the right)? He cannot have both popularity and ideological coherence. In current Austrian politics, this dilemma is the price of power.

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