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The Changing Austrian Voter

0. Introduction
1. Traditional party competition
2. Party affiliation and volatility
3. Traditional determinants
4. Erosion of class voting
5. Gender/Generation realignment
6. Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ)
7. References
8. The authors


1. The traditional sphere of Austrian party competition

Until the early seventies Austrian voting patterns could be described along the concepts of "camp culture" and "camp affiliation" (Plasser, Ulram, and Grausgruber 1992; Müller, Plasser, and Ulram 1995b). Embedded in specific sub-cultural social milieus – which were characterised by a relative stability of distinct structural features such as socio-cultural orientation – emotional attachment and disciplined partisanship shaped the political behaviour of the regular voter and the party’s group of core voters. The extraordinary stability of deeply rooted party affiliation was based on a conflict pattern that structured Austrian society and which was composed of three main cleavages in the fifties and sixties, namely the denominational cleavage (active Catholic milieu or denominationally affiliated milieu versus laicistic, non-denominational milieu), the welfare state cleavage (expectation that the state should provide and regulate social welfare versus stronger orientation towards the free market based on individual initiative and risk) as well as an – albeit slightly weakened – German-national versus Austrian-national cleavage. These three main cleavages – complemented by traditional tensions between urban and rural areas as well as central and peripheral areas – defined the logics of conflict in post-war Austria as well as the boundaries of the dominant political camps.

It was along the first two cleavages that the dominant political camps formed, representing subcultures with strong emotional, ideological and organisational ties. The SPÖ and ÖVP were both the political expression of the political camps and their organisers; the party-political colonisation of the administration, public economy and education sector expanded the reach of camp-oriented relations and mentalities, which were then duly stabilised through the award of material benefits (Müller 1988). The other relevant parties – namely the Communist Party (KPÖ) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ, and its predecessor VdU and WdU) lacked either this inter-linkage with the state apparatus and/or an adequate organisational network, with the result that they also lacked the internal and external stabilisation factors needed to retain voters’ loyalty, even in difficult situations. In fact, during the late fifties and sixties, these parties lost a considerable share of their vote, which had been quite significant in the first years of the Second Republic. While small parties were still capable of capturing some 17 percent of the vote in the elections of 1949 and 1953, this percentage dropped to just above 10 percent in the elections from 1956 to 1966. Conversely, the SPÖ and ÖVP succeeded in increasing their combined share of the vote to almost 90 percent. During this phase, party competition was limited. "Mobile" voter groups comprised:

  • younger voters who were not yet completely integrated into a particular political camp;

  • a small group of politically disinterested and poorly informed voters who Kienzl pithily described as "political drifting sand" (Kienzl 1964);

  • supporters of the small parties;

  • various political splinter groups that had broken away from the SPÖ and ÖVP, to be seen, for instance, in the parliamentary elections of 1966.

Accordingly, with the exception of the parliamentary elections of 1970, electoral volatility was – by international standards – quite low (Plasser, Ulram, and Grausgruber 1992). The two traditional parties, in particular, concentrated on mobilising their core voters rather than on intensifying competition between each other. Over time, however, this cleavage structure underwent a number of major changes. As the Austrian nation was built up, the national cleavage disappeared or at least became irrelevant as German-national orientations dwindled to leave an ever smaller and noticeably aged group of voters (Plasser and Ulram 1993). At first, this constituted a crucial problem for the Freedom Party (FPÖ), as a central element of its ideological self-image no longer produced any positive political response in terms of electoral result. Moreover, the remaining German-national sentiments among functionaries even triggered conflicts within the party and thus led to the formation of barriers to appealing to new voter groups. It was only by greatly eliminating this "burden of history", by replacing the old cadres and manipulating ethnocentric (then, however, Austro-chauvinist) orientations in the nineties that this strategic handicap could be overcome. In a similar, though less dramatic way, it was also the religious secularisation process that undermined the secular–Catholic cleavage. Though the latter retains a structuring function (Jagodzinski 1999), it lost a great deal of political significance in terms of electoral impact due to the strong fall in church affiliation (Plasser and Ulram 1995a). At first, this development weakened the competitive position of the ÖVP. The old conflict configuration "employee versus employer and farmer" was eventually transformed into a conflict between welfare (and state-interventionist) orientations on the one hand and market-related and individualistic orientations on the other. Originally, this was a considerable challenge for the SPÖ, although the problem was mitigated by the fact that its main opponent along the socio-economic cleavage – the ÖVP – was not able to position itself clearly at the free-market pole for a long time due to the interests of a broad clientele, and, more particularly, due to its integration into the social partnership and its strong presence in the public sector of the economy, which was highly oversized up to the eighties. The consequences of the socio-economic and socio-cultural changes, which have gained momentum since the seventies, are equally grave. The core social groups of the traditional parties are shrinking in number and the traditional social milieus are breaking up, which in turn has led to the disintegration of the old networks of social contacts and personal relationships that once guaranteed the social accordance of political attitudes (Plasser, Ulram, and Grausgruber 1992). Ideological interpretation patterns are fading or are no longer adequate to take into account an ever more differentiated social reality. ÖVP and SPÖ are losing some of their sub-cultural anchorage just as the ever-diminishing sub-cultures are losing the political power to integrate and influence. The consequence is an affective and organisational de-structuring of the electorate, accelerated by the rise of the mass media to the role of key player in the political communication process. All in all, this means a fundamental change in the basic parameters of party competition (Donovan and Broughton 1999; Mair 1997; Pennings and Lane 1998).

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