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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

ZAP

3. Traditional determinants of voting behaviour: Consistency in the face of decreasing relevance


Church affiliation and proximity to trade unions used to be two of the traditional determinants in Austria’s voting behaviour. In the past few decades, both have contributed to the extraordinary stability in Austria’s voting behaviour. The vast majority of voters with a strong church affiliation – defined as regular church attendance – support the ÖVP, whereas the majority of trade union members vote for the SPÖ (Plasser and Ulram 1995a: 373). The social modernisation process, however, has not only undermined the social and sub-cultural ties of the traditional parties (SPÖ and ÖVP) but – due to ongoing pluralisation and individualisation – has also weakened formerly binding collective values and interpretation patterns. This development has also had its effect on traditional determinants of Austrian voting behaviour such as denominational church affiliation and trade union membership. Over the past few decades, ties with the church have been loosened, the frequency of church attendance has decreased, and in particular, the strong foothold of ÖVP in denominational milieus has become increasingly more fragile. While the Catholic milieu is still largely intact in rural regions and villages, it is losing its cohesion in the urbanised centres, its networks are becoming more and more fragile and its socio-political relevance is diminishing. (Müller, Plasser, and Ulram 1995b: 167).

While in the early seventies 35 percent of the voters still belonged to the core group of regular Catholic churchgoers, this percentage had dropped to a mere 19 percent by 1999. Despite this trend, integration into a church still has considerable significance for voting behaviour, "this applies to Austria more than to West Germany for – as opposed to the CDU/CSU – the ÖVP did not succeed in gaining as strong a foothold among the non-denominational and those with no church affiliation. This is the very reason why Austrians who are close to the church and those who are not differ so strongly in their voting behaviour and this is also precisely why the frequency of church attendance determines voting behaviour to a much higher degree in Austria than in the Federal Republic of Germany" (Jagodzinski 1999: 90). 45 percent of ÖVP voters belong to the Catholic core. In 1990 this figure was 49 percent, but at the beginning of the sixties more than two thirds of ÖVP voters had belonged to the group of Catholics who regularly attended church. The religious cleavage can still be seen at the end of the nineties in Austrian voting behaviour and shows only marginal changes over time. The Lijphart index of "religious voting" has been at around 40 points in Austria since the eighties. While 59 percent of those who regularly attend Catholic churches voted for ÖVP, only 20 percent among those not close to any church, and 6 percent of the non-denominational did so. On the other hand, SPÖ captured 42 percent of the votes of the non-denominational, 34 percent of those not close to any church and only 20 percent of the votes of the regular Catholic churchgoers. A similar pattern applies to the FPÖ, the Greens, and the Liberal Forum. Thus, the frequency of church attendance continues to be a stable predictor for voting behaviour in favour of ÖVP.

Table 4. Voting behaviour of voters with strong denominational affiliation (1990–1999)

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

1990

22

60

10

5

-

1994

20

59

14

5

1

1995

20

59

12

2

2

1999

20

59

13

4

1

Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit polls (1990–1999).

Table 5. Voting behaviour of trade union members (1990–1999)

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

1990

62

19

11

4

-

1994

50

19

19

7

5

1995

55

16

18

3

4

1999

49

19

21

6

2

Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit polls (1990–1999).

The second traditional determinant of Austrian voting behaviour – trade union membership – has been subject to stronger changes. In line with church affiliation, trade union affiliation has also weakened. The membership statistics of the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) show a persistent decrease in memberships. While in 1990, 25 percent of voters were trade union members, this had fallen to a mere 19 percent by 1999. For the Social Democratic Party, however, affiliation with the trade unions has a similarly stabilising function as an intact church affiliation has for the ÖVP. 61 percent of the SPÖ voters in the parliamentary elections of 1990 were trade union members. Nine years later it was still 57 percent. The "trade union affiliation" predictor, however, has lost much of its ability to shape voting behaviour in the course of the nineties. While in 1990, 62 percent of the trade union members still voted for the SPÖ, four years later this figure had dropped to only 50 percent. In 1999, 49 percent of the trade union members decided to vote for the Social Democrats, but already 21 percent voted for FPÖ, which could double its share of votes among trade union members as compared to the 1990 elections. The penetration of the FPÖ into traditional core voter segments of the Social Democratic Party, as well as the decreasing relevance of the social and denominational core groups in political competition, point to a strong class de-alignment, the extent and origins of which will be dealt with in the following section.


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