The existential crisis of the Austrian People’s Party – POLITICO


Liam Hoare is Europe editor of Moment magazine and author of “The Vienna Briefing” newsletter on Austrian politics and culture.

VIENNA — Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer has been in office for less than a year and is already fighting for his political life.

On August 1, a pair of stories appeared simultaneously in Austria’s two widely circulated free newspapers, Heute and Austriaciting important sources from his People’s Party (ÖVP) and describing their “secret plan” to defenestrate the former interior minister.

Just weeks after becoming chancellor, Nehammer had come to terms with the invasion of Ukraine and its effects on his country, which relies heavily on Russian fossil fuels. His handling of the ensuing energy and cost-of-living crises was directionless and ineffective, with the rate of inflation reaching its highest levels since March 1975. And he didn’t help himself either, joking during a recent party conference that unless the ÖVP got inflation under control, it was left with only two choices: “alcohol or psychotropic drugs”.

Nationally, party poll numbers are plummeting and Nehammer is now the least popular head of government in the world. If an election were held tomorrow, his party would probably finish third, behind both the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). This is all bad enough on its own, of course, but what really irks senior party sources is the trickle down effect at the national and local levels, as the ÖVP has found itself in the midst of a wider internal crisis.

Next September the party faces a key electoral test in Tyrol, a heartland of the ÖVP where under normal circumstances the party would expect to win at least 40% of the vote. This time, however, vote noted he will be lucky to reach 30 percent.

What if Nehammer should be dethroned after this Tyrolean vote, but before similar critical election tests take place in the states of Lower Austria and Salzburg in early 2023 – although his camp dismissed that idea as foolish speculation – his replacement would then become the fourth Austrian. Chancellor in just 12 months.

Former chancellor Sebastian Kurz had resigned in October 2021, amid a corruption scandal that saw state prosecutors raid the federal chancellery. His replacement, Alexander Schallenberg, then lasted less than two months, failing to secure the support of party state governors. Nehammer was their choice – and now they have buyer’s remorse.

On one level, the internal crisis of the ÖVP is simply symptomatic of a party that has been in government, whether as a senior or junior coalition partner, since 1986.

The contemporary ÖVP is like a ghost ship, drifting nonchalantly through the night. Instead of an overall political vision, a purpose, his politics are nothing but clientelism – tax and spending policies aimed at key electoral groups like farmers, small business owners and middle-class families. Meanwhile, his corruption scandals — specifically the “advertising affair” where state funds were used to pay for sexist opinion polls favorable to Kurz, investigators say — have arisen in departments like the ministry. of Finance, which for a long time belonged to the ÖVP. to input.

Yet the party’s current predicament appears to run even deeper. The ÖVP is in the throes of an existential crisis, the roots of which go back decades and reflect tectonic shifts in Austrian electoral politics.

In the decades following World War II, the country was politically and economically split between the SPÖ and the ÖVP. The two ruled in a grand coalition for two decades, regularly winning between 85 and 90 percent of the vote between them. Then things started to change.

First, the ÖVP obtained an absolute majority in 1966. Then, the SPÖ governed alone from 1971 to 1983, a period of low unemployment and social liberalization during which, under the leadership of Bruno Kreisky, Austria imposed itself on the international scene. However, that didn’t last.

The loss of the absolute majority by the SPÖ gave the ÖVP a taste of the future. The Social Democrats’ vote share fell from 51.03% in 1979 to 21.18% 40 years later, as their broad electoral coalition was separated by two emerging political forces: the Green movement in the 1980s and the extreme right in the 1990s. During these years, the ties that united the urban liberal bourgeoisie with the diminished working class of Austria became increasingly loose. And today, their interest in issues, from immigration and human rights to the environment, seems largely irreconcilable.

Even though the ÖVP suffered a similar decline over the same period, winning only 23.99% of the vote in the 2013 general election, when Sebastian Kurz finally took control of the party in 2017, this led to two knockout electoral victories. It was almost as if he had found a formula for success, using immigration as an issue to attract far-right voters.

Looking back, however, those victories were kind of a false hope. At one end of the spectrum, this hard line on immigration is one of the factors that pushed the liberal wing of the ÖVP into the arms of the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) party. And at the other end, with Kurz now gone, the party’s far-right voters slowly drifted back to their natural home in the FPÖ.

In many ways, Austria was a forerunner, a foretaste of the fragmentation and reorganization of electoral politics seen in France and Germany in recent years. It marked the death of two-party politics and rote party allegiance based on class, age and profession, and hailed the emergence of new political forces on the left, center and far right.

Over the past 40 years, Austria has moved from a two-party to a five-party system, while governing parties like the ampel left-liberal-green coalition, which once seemed unthinkable and unwieldy, now seems both plausible and desirable to voters.

And at the center of the ÖVP’s existential crisis is the crucial realization that the era of Volkspartei — of the political party as a broad church — is now well and truly over,




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