While the world had been attentively watching the UN General Assembly taking place in New York, politicians in Austria have been busy campaigning for months. The Austrian legislative elections will be held this Sunday, on the 29th, across the country to determine representation in the National Council. On the federal level, Austria has two main elections, one for the head of state (Federal President) every six years, and one for the 183 seats on the National Council (Nationalrat) every five years. The National Council elections are determined by party-list proportional representation, and with 92 seats needed for a majority, a grand coalition of major political parties has been the norm in the last few years.
During the last elections in 2008, a grand coalition was formed between Austria’s two largest parties, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). SPÖ’s Werner Faymann, who became Chancellor, has governed the coalition. However, since 2008, support for both major parties has fallen noticeably. This in turn has increased support for two other parties, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) known for its right-wing national conservatism, and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), also a right-wing party. Both parties made significant gains in the 2008 elections, and FPÖ’s popularity has been increasing ever since. The BZÖ lost some of its support after the death of its founder, Jörg Haider, shortly after the elections. Moreover, the BZÖ has seen nine of its twenty-one members in the National Council change their party affiliation in the last five years: five members have joined Team Stronach, a party running for the first time this year, and four others joined forces with the FPÖ.
Team Stronach has also been able to hurt the FPÖ’s current popularity in the polls. Team Stronach, is headed and funded by Austrian-Canadian businessman and billionaire, Frank Stronach. His party calls for a return to the Schilling or an anti-euro alternative, a 25% flat-rate income tax, and an end to conscription. While many see Frank Stronach as an outsider, the party polls between 10 to 12% in Gallup polls, while only existing since September of last year.
The Green party (Die Grünen) currently holds twenty seats in the National Council and has solidified their position as the fourth-largest party in opinion polls. Their charter states that their vision is that of a “caring society of free people in a healthy environment”. Die Grünen campaign diligently for immigrants and minorities, and are therefore highly scrutinized by the FPÖ.
And the FPÖ has not been immune to immense scrutiny itself. Headed by Heinz Christian Strache, the FPÖ is known for its nationalistic right-wing ideologies that border on white supremacy. Previous campaign slogans include “Love for the homeland, over Moroccan thieves” (Heimatliebe statt Marokkaner Diebe), “Go back home over Islam” (Daham statt Islam), and “Vienna cannot turn into Istanbul” (Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden). For many liberals, it is very disconcerting how popular Strache and the FPÖ have become with the youth. Strache’s Facebook page has over 160,000 followers, he frequents clubs and bars to socialize with young voters, and ironically, he recently came out with a rap song to support his nationalistic campaign.
While it is highly unlikely that the FPÖ will get a majority win in the upcoming elections this Sunday, there is still concern for how many seats they will gain, and whether a coalition will have to be formed with them. It seems that Strache’s social media presence and youthful attitude has won him a lot of popularity, and maybe it’s time for the other parties to also take cue. Otherwise, Austria will become yet another European country moving to the extreme right – a position that has proven disastrous in the past.