Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Has the migrant crisis really impacted Austria's politics?

Austria, a small country in Europe's south-east, has been quite substantially impacted by the large numbers of Syrian immigrants travelling towards Western Europe. Like all countries in Europe, Austria's government services have been placed under strain by the large number of people moving through and into the country.

It is not unusual for immigration of this sort to lead to political change in a country. Sweden, for example, has seen substantial gains in recent years for the right-wing anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, which has been linked to concern over increases in immigration. In Germany, Angela Merkel's liberal policy towards Syrian refugees has led to a polling surge for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party.

There is something in common between these two countries. In Sweden, asylum seeker policy has generally been fairly liberal under both the centre-left and centre-right, while in Germany, the liberal asylum seeker policy has been led by centre-right Merkel. Centre-right voters are less likely to support such an immigration policy, leading them to seek alternatives to the right.

At the moment, Austria is governed by a 'grand coalition' of the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right People's Party. A government of this sort presiding over high immigration would be likely to alienate People's Party voters concerned about immigration, and cause them to move towards right-wing alternatives. The largest and most prominent of these is the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO).

This party has a long history in Austria. They were formed in 1949 as the Party of Independents, and won 10% of the vote at their electoral debut. For its early years, it was a more liberal party, which had only a small number of seats. Oddly for a country with a very proportional electoral system, at this time Austria had a very strong two-party system, with the Social Democrats and People's Party often being able to form majority governments.

However, the party began to gain traction under the leadership of Jorg Haider. Haider was a more right-wing figure, and led the party in a Eurosceptic direction. This turned out to be electorally profitable; at the party's first election under Haider's leadership (in 1986), the party increased its vote by 4.7%, and by 6.9% in 1990 (probably related to the previous government being a grand coalition. The continuance of the grand coalition up to the 1994 election meant that their vote went up by 5.9% to 22.5%, despite the liberal wing of the party leaving to form the new Liberal Forum. This result meant that they were close to the centre-right.

The 1999 election was the apex of the Freedom Party's support. The party recieved 26.91% of the vote, the same percentage to two decimal places as the People's Party. However, the Freedom Party recieved 417 votes more than the People's Party, making them narrowly the second largest party. Rather than continuing the grand coalition, the People's Party decided to form a government coalition with the Freedom Party. People's Party leader Wolfgang Schlussel became Chancellor, since the parties had an equal number of seats and the Freedom Party were considered to be too extreme to run the government.

The Freedom Party, as the less visible coalition partner, lost a large portion of its support as a result of the coalition. At the 2002 election, the Freedom Party vote went down to just 10%, with the People's Party's vote going up by 15%.

Nonetheless, the coalition of the People's and Freedom parties continued after the election. However, the Freedom Party split in 2005, with Haider forming the new Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO). This party stayed in the coalition with the People's Party, while the Freedom Party left government.

Internal strife of this sort led to both parties faring poorly at the 2006 election. The Freedom Party won only slightly more votes than their dismal 2002 performance, and polled below the Greens for the first time in their history (only by 538 votes, though), while the BZO only just crossed the 4% threshold under Austria's multi-tier method of party-list proportional representation. It is also worth noting that 2.8% of the vote at this election was taken by the list of Hans-Peter Martin, a Member of the European Parliament who had been prominent in attacking other MEPs for misuse of travel expenses; a populist figure of this nature could be expected to attract the support of Eurosceptic voters who might otherwise be attracted to the Freedom or BZO parties.

However, better days were to come for these two parties. Following the 2006 election, another 'grand coalition' was formed between the two main parties. As has been stated above, such 'grand coalitions' have lead to voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties. The 2006-2008 period also saw the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, which expanded the powers of the European Union somewhat, without a referendum. In the early 2008 election, both the Freedom and People's parties gained support, at the expense of both major parties.
Following this election, there was little option other than a grand coalition of the Social Democrats and People's Party. However, this coalition was extraordinary weak for a grand coalition in Austria; the two major parties had only 55% of the vote between them.

The BZO suffered a substantial setback following the election, when leader Jorg Haider died in a car accident. This meant that the gains from the weakening of the grand coalition parties, which continued, went heavily to the Freedom Party. The 2008-2013 grand coalition government served its full term, but, as usual, the following election saw a decline in support for the grand coalition parties.

This loss did not only advantage the Freedom Party, but also a new party that had been formed recently. Canadian-Austrian businessman Frank Stronach formed a party, with the support of a number of existing Members of Parliament, called Team Stronach. It was opposed to the European Union, and supportive of economic liberalism. Stronach's strong financial support for the party propelled it to a fairly strong performance at the election. The other new party, The New Austria, was a liberal, pro-European group, which won a small number of seats.

The expected result of the election was a grand coalition government, as before, but with only a small parliamentary majority (with 92 seats needed, the Social Democrats and People's Party had only 99 seats). 

So, how are the FPO doing?

Since the 2015 election, the events of the migrant crisis have taken place. Certain international media reports have suggested that there has been a surge in far-right support. Now, if we look at FPO votes over time, that certainly does seem to be the case.

2016 vote share from this poll.

It's not hard to see why that would be viewed as a surge. However, that's not the whole story. As I've said above, the Austrian far-right has two other parties in it; Team Stronach and the Alliance for the Future of Austria. If we add these two onto our graph, we get a somewhat different one.
This certainly looks a lot less impressive. The increase from 2013 is only 3% if you factor in the Stronach and Alliance votes, which is hardly a party-system shaking change, and certainly not a 'surge'.  Even if we consider that the Stronach Team may not be as anti-immigration as the Freedom Party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria+Freedom Party (with both parties being fairly anti-immigration, and likely to enter coalition with each other if they had a majority) vote share in 2008 was 28%, which makes the increase only 4%.

But what about the presidentials?

One of the other events that has happened in Austria recently was the presidential elections. In these elections, the Freedom candidate Norbert Hofer came first, with Alexander van der Bellen, the Independent Green, in a poor second.

As you can see, the Freedom Party was comfortably ahead; Hofer is not yet President, as he has to contest a second round against van der Bellen, as no candidate won a majority in the first round. Polls for the second round show both candidates at a dead heat; however, since Hofer was substantially underpolled in the first round, it appears likely that he will be elected President.

So, does this mean that there is a massive surge in support for the Freedom Party? Well, that's uncertain. For a start, the presidential race is highly personalistic, as can be seen by the small votes for the Social Democratic and People's candidates compared to their party polling (and as can also be seen by the posters, which do not show party affiliation for certain candidates), and the large number of votes taken by the independent Griss. The results of the presidential election will not necessarily be borne out in the legislative election.

Second, Hofer has the advantage of running against van der Bellen, who has mostly left-wing support. Had Griss, who had more right-wing support, been in the second round, she could have been more competitive, as she would have been able to mobilise both left-wing (in opposition to Hofer) and right-wing support.

While the underpolling for the presidential elections suggests that there could be underlying support not detected in the polls, the polls for the legislative and European elections were quite close to the actual support for the party.

The increase in support for the Freedom Party should not be seen as a massive upsurge in support for them. Instead, it represents consolidation of the voters sympathetic to the right-wing populist policies espoused by them. The party remains short of a majority; however, if Hofer is elected President (by means that, as stated above, do not necessarily suggest a surge in support either), he will be able to appoint the Prime Minister, and dissolve the legislature. This represents the most substantial challenge for the non-Freedom parties, and suggests potential for a constitutional crisis.

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