Just the Facts: Austrian Parliamentary Elections 2017

Parliamentary elections were held in Austria on Sunday, 15 October 2017.  The Social Democratic Party, led by Chancellor Christian Kern, had been in coalition with the Austrian People’s Party since 2013. Provisional results indicate that the Austrian People’s Party won the biggest share of the vote, but do not have an absolute majority.

Background

The Austrian Parliament is made up of two houses: the lower house, the Nationalrat or the National Council, and the upper house, the Bundesrat or Federal Council.  The National Council has greater legislative authority than the Federal Council, which only has limited powers to block legislation.

The National Council consists of 183 members, elected through a voting system based on the principles of proportional representation, an open list system and preferential votes.  The electoral system matches the number of parties’ seats in Parliament to their share of votes, provided they reach a minimum of 4 per cent of the total vote.  As such, parties rarely win an absolute majority.  Austria is the only EU country where the voting age for national Parliamentary elections is 16.

Since 2013, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), led by Chancellor Christian Kern, had been in coalition with the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).  On 10 May 2017, Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner of the ÖVP resigned, citing a lack of support from within his party and frustration with the coalition as the reasons.  Snap elections were set for 15 October following the collapse of the coalition.  The SPÖ and ÖVP had reportedly been in dispute prior to this and a previous possible coalition collapse had been avoided in January 2017 with an agreement on policy objectives.

Sebastian Kurz, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, was appointed acting party leader of the ÖVP upon Mr Mitterlehner’s resignation and was officially elected leader on 3 June.  He rebranded the party, campaigning on a platform of promised change.

Over the course of the campaign, Mr Kurz made reference to his work as Foreign Minister in closing the Balkan route for migrants and refugees in 2016 and on the “burqa ban” which came into force in Austria this month.  The far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), whose candidate was narrowly defeated in the Austrian Presidential election in December 2016 by President Alexander Van der Bellen, had led opinion polls since spring 2015.  This lead dropped back to third place over the summer, behind the ÖVP and the SPÖ.

The election campaign was marked by scandal, most notably the “Schmutzkübel” (dirt bucket) campaign which involved attempts to discredit Mr Kurz through social media campaigns.  The SPÖ admitted that consultants they had hired were behind this campaign.  This came to light two weeks before Austrians went to the polls, after which there was a five point drop in opinion poll support for the SPÖ.

The scandal escalated further with a consultant involved in the Schmutzkübel campaign alleging that Mr Kurz’s aide attempted to bribe them away from Chancellor Kern’s election campaign, which the ÖVP denied.  Both parties have since registered criminal complaints against each other.

Results

Turnout was 79.4 per cent, an increase of 4.5 per cent from the previous federal elections in 2013.  Provisional results published by the Austrian Interior Ministry indicate that the ÖVP won the biggest share of the vote with 31.5 per cent (62 seats), an increase of 7.5 per cent from 2013.  However, they have not gained an absolute majority. Their former coalition partners, the SPÖ, won the second-biggest share, with 26.9 per cent (52 seats), an increase of 0.1 per cent.

The far-right FPÖ won 26 per cent of votes (51 seats), increasing their share of the vote by 5.5 per cent.  This was followed by the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) who received 5.3 per cent of the vote (10 seats), a 0.3 per cent increase.

The Peter Pilz List returned 4.4 per cent of the vote (8 seats), the only other party to pass the 4 per cent threshold, making them eligible to take seats in the Austrian lower house.  The Peter Pilz List was founded in 2017 after Mr Pilz left Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative, the Austrian Greens.  As the Austrian Greens took only 3.8 per cent of the vote, an 8.7 per cent loss on the previous election, they do not enter Parliament.

Reaction

The FPÖ is likely to be key in negotiations.  Neither the SPÖ nor the ÖVP ruled out going into coalition with the FPÖ during the campaign and both parties have previously been in coalition with the far-right party.

Mr Kurz of the ÖVP has said that it is the party’s “task to work with all others for our country”.  President Van der Bellen has commented: “I will ensure that the fundamental European values inscribed in our constitution remain the compass for Austria’s future”.

Austria will hold the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union from July to December 2018.

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