Sunday’s election in Austria has proven to be a success for former chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖPP) following a corruption scandal that rocked the government. A path back to creating a governing coalition, however, is not clear-cut.
In May, snap elections were called following a no-confidence vote that resulted in Kurz being ousted from office. That month, the ÖPP’s coalition partner, the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), saw its leader Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigning after a video emerged in German media of a 2017 sting operation in which Strache was seen promising government contracts to an individual posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The affair, widely known as “Ibizagate” after the Spanish island in which it took place, seems to have left the former chancellor almost completely untouched, with the ÖPP increasing by almost 6% from its 2017 election results. On the other hand, the FPÖ sustained heavy losses. The other big winner of the election were the Greens, who will be reentering parliament after having missed the 4% threshold last time round.
It remains unclear as to who Kurz will turn to in his attempt to create a coalition with a working majority. One option is to return to the previous arrangement with the FPÖ, something which the latter is keen to do. However, while this proved to be a natural partnership last time round, it might prove to be less desirable. In addition to the FPÖ now being tainted by allegations of corruption, its anti-migration rhetoric has proven to be less salient with voters, most likely due to the decline in the migration crisis which came to dominate European politics between 2015 and 2017 but less so in 2019. Time spent in the opposition could be to populists’ advantage, however, allowing it to recover as well as give it time to regain favor with voters.
Another alternative is to form a so-called grand coalition with the second-largest party, the Social Democrats. This is not unprecedented, with that having been the case as recently as 2006-2017. But this is unlikely to be an attractive proposition to the Social Democrats with recent history both in Austria as well as other European countries, namely Germany and the Netherlands, demonstrating that such a coalition tends to harm the centre-left parties electorally more so than the centre-right ones.
This leaves one final possibility for Kurz, which is to enter a coalition with the Greens and the liberal and pro-business Neos. Though a likely possibility, it is not an easy one which is sure to rile voters in both the ÖPP and the Greens. For the former, whose base partially consists of social conservatives as well as farmers, the left-leaning Greens are particularly unpalatable while for the Greens, Kurz’s embrace of the FPÖ, widely considered a far-right party, had angered many among the Greens’ core voters. Increased concerns about the environment among voters more broadly might force Kurz to give significant grounds on key issues if he wishes to retake power.
Coalition talks are likely to take weeks with the current technocratic caretaker government headed by former judge Brigitte Bierlein continuing in the meantime.
Naman Habtom-Desta is the Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum and a writer with a focus on international affairs and security policy. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of Cambridge where he is researching Swedish nuclear weapons policy during the Cold War.