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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


2. Decline of traditional party affiliation and increased volatility

The decline of traditional party affiliation and the fiercer competition resulting from this for the political parties have, in the meantime, become standard diagnoses in Western European party studies. In contrast to the situation in the eighties, controversies are not stirred up by the question of whether de-alignment is taking place but rather to what extent the ties of traditional party affiliation have already been loosened. Firstly, sociological literature defines de-alignment as an uncoupling of social class features and voting behaviour. In this context, de-alignment means the loosening of the structural anchorage of the parties in traditional social cleavage configurations. Secondly, de-alignment is defined as the erosion of more long-term, affective identification with one particular political party. In this context, party identification as measured in representative opinion polls is a prominent indicator. Thirdly, de-alignment stands for a general disassociation from the traditional parties and is used as an indicator of far-reaching problems of legitimacy in political competition (Gluchowski and Plasser 1999: 3).

Thus, the initial focus is on methodical problems, which basically revolve around the question of whether or not it makes sense to apply the concept of party identification adopted from US electoral research to the Western European multi-party system. The transferability of the concept of an affective, long-term party identification and the methodical inaccuracy of the measuring instruments (Sinnott 1998) give rise to polemic debate. The estimated degree of the decline of traditional party affiliation is similarly controversial. The fact that in most of the Western European party systems "de-alignments of degree" (Clarke and Stewart 1998) are to be observed, that traditional cleavage configurations are losing their relevance (Inglehart 1997) and that the electoral instability in Western European party systems has clearly increased since the seventies (Franklin, Mackie, and Valen 1992; Ersson and Lane 1998), had become conventional wisdom among party researchers and party strategists by the end of the nineties.

However, the question whether the existing time series and indicators justify the diagnosis of a predetermined "decline of parties" is subject to great debate. While Schmitt and Holmberg (1995) come to a differentiated and cautious conclusion based on extensive analyses of the decline of affective party affiliations in Western Europe, in which they refer to "specific developments, by country and by party" (Schmitt and Holmberg 1995: 121), Dalton’s (1998) data rather show a generalised and persistent erosion process that justifies to speak of "parties without partisans" at the end of the nineties.

The "Golden Age of Parties" (Janda and Colman 1998) was characterised by large shares of regular voters, a marked sense of party loyalty, stable – and in most respects – predictable voting behaviour, intact organisational structures, and working communication between the parties and their voters. Since the sixties far-reaching changes among voters and in terms of competition have made the environment of parties much more complex (Mair, Müller, and Plasser 1999). As early as in the fifties and sixties, the progressing industrialisation and modernisation of production structures led to a decline of the industrial and agricultural sectors. Parties whose main support came from these milieus were forced to aim at broadening their appeal to new groups of voters. While at first it was the ÖVP that was affected by this development, from the late sixties onward the socio-economic structural change also threatened the SPÖ, which mainly relied on groups of voters from the industrial sector. The decline of the share of industrial workers, decreasing class awareness and the erosion of class-specific milieus posed a threat to the SPÖ’s future electoral success. However, the ÖVP, too, was forced on to the defensive by this social transformation. The progressing secularisation of society – the decline in church affiliation, the dwindling number of regular churchgoers, and the undermining of denominational networks and milieus – reduced the influence of denominational affiliations on election results.

Since the early seventies, new issues and conflicts as well as changed attitudes towards values and expectations of post-modern, cognitively mobilised groups of voters have reinforced the competitive pressure on parties (Dalton 1996b; Inglehart 1997; Clark and Rempel 1997). Newly formed Green and libertarian parties intensified the competitive situation and, as a first step, threatened the monopoly of the traditional parties in representing the public. Since the eighties, Austria’s political parties have had to face an electorate that is increasingly critical, as well as increased political disenchantment and fluctuating groups of protest voters. The right-wing populist FP has underwent radical change since 1986. It has been injecting polarising topics into public discussion, pooling emotional protest attitudes and anti-party reflexes ever since Mr. Haider’s accession to the chairmanship in 1986. As a consequence, the FPÖ is penetrating deep into the core voter groups of the traditional parties. Behind the electoral success of FPÖ, however, lies not only pent-up criticism and the discontent of weary voters, but also conflicts between those who are benefiting from modernisation and those who are losing out, as well as conflicts between those who belong to the sheltered, public sector and those who find themselves in the unsheltered, private sector. Problems which result from the business cycle coupled with increasing economic rationalisation and competitive pressure in the nineties have only intensified these conflicts (Kitschelt 1995).

Finally, the most recent challenge to political parties has been the far-reaching changes in political communication. On the one hand, this affects internal organisational communications between party headquarters and party members, and, on the other, the party elite’s ability to communicate externally in media-oriented democracies (Mair, Müller, and Plasser 1999). Ensuring appropriate media presentation of the respective issues, personalising the party image, devising a marketing strategy for successful positioning vis-à-vis one’s opponents (Collins and Butler 1996), segmentation of the electorate and precise targeting ensure short-term success in mobilising voters, but – at the same time – weaken long-term party affiliations based on sentiment and interests (Plasser 2000).

The time series presented in Table 1 reflect the degree of erosion of traditional party affiliations. While about three quarters of the Austrian electorate still had a stable affiliation with a political party in the fifties and sixties, only half of the country’s voters showed a long-term emotional inclination towards a certain party at the end of the nineties. Compared with the situation in the mid-seventies, the number of voters with a strong party affiliation has halved; the figure was only 16 percent in 1999. Similarly, the proportion of registered party members has almost halved, as also the general capability of Austria’s traditional parties to mobilise voters and to campaign efficiently has in some cases dramatically decreased. Demotivation, a lack of incentives, and an electorate that has become far more critical of political parties in general since the eighties have all demobilised the party supporters.

There are three phases of de-alignment to be seen in Austria each of which has specific causes of de-alignment (Müller, Plasser, and Ulram 1999: 209 f.). The first phase covering the period from the late sixties to the end of the seventies may be called structural de-alignment. The socio-economic transformation (decline in the size of the farming population as a proportion of total workforce, increased regional and occupational mobility, industrialisation and sub-urbanisation of formerly rural regions) as well as the modernisation of production structures (decline of the traditional industrial labour force, decline of the retail industry and small business enterprises, increase in the service sector, in the public sector and in the new middle-class emerging from the white-collar labour force) have not only substantially changed the social make-up of the grassroots of the major parties but have also led to a weakening of traditional party loyalties and once stable voter-party affiliations. In this first phase, de-alignment has taken the form of a political secularisation process and has affected voters with only moderate or little party identification. The hard core of voters who identified with a party remained largely unaffected despite a gradual increase in political mobility. The result was a gradual de-alignment of the electorate on the micro-level with voting behaviour remaining stable on the aggregate level. (Gluchowski and Plasser 1999: 13-15).

The second phase of the de-alignment process started in the late seventies and lasted into the mid-eighties. This phase may be called affective de-alignment. Particularly in the eighties, Austria saw an increase in general disenchantment with the political parties and a sharp increase in criticism of parties and élites in the form of emotionally charged "anti-political" reflexes and resentment. The readiness to identify with a particular party fell significantly due to a series of political scandals, dissatisfaction with the performance of the governing parties and the development of new cleavages (ecological cleavage). The political culture moved towards a protest culture of voters, which was to determine the third phase of de-alignment in particular. It may be defined as protest-inspired oppositional de-alignment. There are two factors causing this development. Firstly, it was the revival of the "Grand Coalition" between SPÖ and ÖVP (in 1987) that led to a further weakening of traditional party loyalties, stimulating oppositional reflexes to an oversized coalition and reinforcing the impression that there was no longer any difference between the two ruling parties. The second factor can be attributed to a strategic player – the right-wing populist FPÖ – which deliberately reinforces the latent protest attitude among the electorate, polarising new cleavages within society even more strongly, deliberately bringing explosive issues or topics that arouse resentment (immigration, crime) to a head and practising a general policy of strategic affect management. The consequences of this third phase of de-alignment are not only a progressive decline of traditional party affiliation, increased mobility and the readiness to switch to another party, but also a substantial weakening of the core strata of the electorate of the two governing parties which – although surviving the first phase of de-alignment relatively unscathed – bore the full brunt of the dynamics of erosion.

As the Austrian parties’ body of core support wanes, so the proportion of non-affiliated floating voters has steadily increased. While, for instance, only 8 percent of the electorate could be classified as "split voters" in 1972, this figure had risen to as high as 46 percent by 1999. Practically one in two voters supported different parties in the parliamentary and Land elections. Only 43 percent of those eligible to vote in Austria may be called consistent voters, constantly voting for the same party in all elections they take part in. The share of floating voters has also steadily increased with regard to parliamentary elections. During the parliamentary election of 1979 only 7 percent voted for a party other than the one they had voted for in the parliamentary election of 1975, yet the proportion of floating voters in the 1999 parliamentary election was 18 percent. Over the same period, Austria’s traditionally high electoral turnout also fell. Just as party affiliation has waned, so has electoral participation, with abstention as a form of protest becoming an option for dissatisfied voters and those who have become disenchanted with politics in general.

At the same time the share of voters who did not decide who to support until the final phase of the election campaign has increased. While only 9 percent belonged to the group of late deciders back in 1979, the equivalent figure was as much as 20 percent in the parliamentary election of 1999. The increasing share of late deciders logically raises the mass media’s power to influence voters in their coverage, such as of crucial events during the election campaigns and appearances of candidates in TV interviews and studio confrontations and/or their interpretation and evaluation by the mass media (Plasser 2000).

Table 2. Timing of final voting decision (1979–1999)

Percentage of voters who made a definite decision ...








late deciders (shortly before the election)








early deciders (at an earlier stage)








Source: FESSEL-GfK, representative post-election polls (1979–1983) or exit polls (1979–1999), respectively.

One fifth of the voters who voted in the 1999 elections made their final decision on which party to support as late as in the last days or weeks before the election. This percentage of "late" and "last-minute deciders" roughly corresponds to the figures of 1995. Voters who opted for the small parties such as the Greens, LIF (and DU) were the ones who left their decision the longest. However, what is of particular interest and typical for the course of the election campaign is the time when the voters of the three major parties made their decision. Among both SPÖ and FPÖ voters the share of late deciders was 15 percent, in the case of the ÖVP it was 18 percent. 12 percent of the ÖVP voters even left their final decision until the last few days prior to the election itself. Voters who switched parties also tended to leave their decision to the last minute: 50 percent of them were late deciders. Three out of ten voters in the 1999 parliamentary elections – as in previous elections – had also considered voting for another party. This applies to six out of ten Green and LIF voters. Among the major parties, the ÖVP has the biggest share of floating voters, with one third of this group having considered voting for FPÖ and almost half of them not decided to vote in favour of the ÖVP until the last few days and weeks of the campaign.

Table 3. The changing proportion of waverers

Percentage of voters who had originally considered voting for a party other than the one actually supported







Share of waverers






Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit polls (1986–1999).

In total, 18 percent of voters cast their vote in 1999 for a party other than the one supported in the parliamentary elections of 1995. This corresponds to the rate of floating voters of the elections in the nineties. The slight decrease in floating voters from 1995 to 1999 should be viewed against the background of the strong rise in the number of voters who simply stay at home, a phenomenon which had a much stronger effect on the SPÖ than on the ÖVP. Moreover, the general tendency to abstain from voting as a form of protest gives rise to a revision of the image of the apathetic, marginalised non-voter who has turned his back on to politics (Renz 1997; Völker and Völker 1998).

In several respects the socio-demographic composition of the group of floating voters is clearly different from that of the electorate as a whole. On balance, the largest group is made up of persons aged 30 to 44, who account for 44 percent of all waverers; voters with school qualifications and higher education graduates (50 percent) and/or white-collar workers (38 percent) account for a disproportionately large share of floating voters. By contrast, the share of waverers among the older generation of voters and the less well educated was clearly below average. Overall, gender-specific differences among waverers are relatively low, yet detailed analysis reveals quite telling trends: 63 percent of former SPÖ voters switching over to the FPÖ and 57 percent of former ÖVP voters going over to the FPÖ were men.

Floating voters who did not decide which party to vote for until the final phase of the election (late deciders), reported exceptionally frequently that they were strongly influenced in their personal decision by the mass media’s political coverage of the campaign. 23 percent of the waverers said that statements made by the top candidates on radio and television and the televised debates between the top politicians had strongly influenced their personal voting decision. However, commentaries and analyses in the print media, as well as talking to friends and family, had also strongly influenced one in five floating voters and an even larger share of late deciders. After all, 5 percent of the waverers interviewed considered that they had been strongly influenced by the opinion polls published in the media. Taking into account the "third person effect", known in communications – according to which people consider third persons to be much more susceptible than themselves – and the fact that interviewees in general tend to play down the impact of the media on their own behaviour, this percentage is quite remarkable. Remarkable, too, is the low importance that the respondents attribute to promotional means of communication in terms of influencing their personal voting decision. However, this is where the "third person effect" comes in again and where it is also impossible to use the data to derive any estimates on the impact of the media on the actual outcome of the elections. Finding such evidence would require far more complex research projects. Nevertheless, the data presented confirm the relevance of the manner in which politics are presented by the mass media. At the same time, however, they also point to the often underestimated significance of personal communication and discussion in the voter’s closer social environment. The latter, however, is becoming a less and less reliable guarantee of stable, party-loyal voting behaviour, which requires the provision of consonant messages and signals.

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