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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

4. Erosion of class voting behaviour and new sectoral cleavages


Up to the early eighties, social and occupational circumstances did a good job as predictors of Austrian voting behaviour. In particular the professional status and, in this context, especially the dividing line between mainly manual and non-manual activities, shaped voting behaviour and led to the comparably stable pattern of class voting. Since the eighties the socio-economic and generational changes in conjunction with progressive individualisation and social differentiation contributed to a substantial weakening of class voting. "Throughout Western Europe, social class voting indices are about half as large among the post-war birth cohorts as they are among older groups" (Inglehart 1997: 254 f.). The most prominent indicator for measuring class voting is the Alford index which is calculated on the basis of the difference between the percentage of blue collar worker and white collar workers who vote for a left-of-centre party. While the Alford index for Austrian voting behaviour was still constantly above the average value of Western industrialised democracies in the seventies, the same index has decreased since the eighties and reached a negative value in the parliamentary elections of 1999 for the first time.

Table 6. Alford index of class voting (1961–1999)

Period

Mean index value

1961–1970

27.4

1971–1980

28.9

1981–1990

18.3

1990–1999

8.7

1999

-1.0

Source: Nieuwbeerta and De Graaf (1999: 32) and FESSEL-GfK, exit polls (1994–1999).

However, it is not only the strong erosion of class voting – a "class voting de-alignment" (Evans 1999) – that is characteristic of the situation in Austria but also the simultaneous re-orientation of the voting behaviour of Austria’s working class. It is no exaggeration to speak of "blue-collar realignment" in this respect. Back in 1979, 65 percent of Austria’s blue-collar workers were still voting for the SPÖ, but this figure had fallen to a mere 35 percent by 1999. Within twenty years, the SPÖ’s share of the vote among the working class has fallen by half, the FPÖ’s share, however, has increased tenfold.

Table 7. Voting behaviour of blue-collar workers (1979–1999)

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

1979

65

29

4

1983

61

28

3

1986

57

26

10

1990

53

22

21

1994

47

15

29

1995

41

13

34

1999

35

12

47

Source: FESSEL-GfK, representative post-election polls (1979–1983) and exit polls (1986–1999).

Since 1999 the FPÖ has become the predominant blue-collar workers’ party by far with a share of 47 percent of the working class vote. Only 35 percent of the blue-collar workers voted for the SPÖ, and a mere 12 percent for the ÖVP. Thus, the voting behaviour of the Austrian working class differs considerably from the blue-collar vote in other Western European democracies. In the 1998 elections to the German Bundestag, for instance, 48 percent of blue-collar workers voted for the SPD and 30 percent for the CDU/CSU (Feist and Hoffmann 1999), whilst in the 1997 general election in Great Britain, 68 percent of blue-collar voters supported Labour and 18 percent the Conservative Party (Norris 1999). Meanwhile, in the 1997 parliamentary elections in France, 50 percent of blue-collar workers voted for left-of-centre parties, and 25 percent for the Front National (Boy and Mayer 2000). At the same time, France provides an example of the above-average attractiveness of radical right-wing populist parties among (predominantly male) voters from the industrial working class (Betz 1994; Betz and Immerfall 1998). Compared with France, however, the reorientation of the voting behaviour of Austrian blue-collar workers is much stronger. In Austria’s 1995 parliamentary elections the FPÖ managed to attract more blue-collar voters than the Front National in the elections to the French National Assembly held in the same year. In 1997, 25 percent of French workers voted Front National, whilst, in the Austrian parliamentary elections of 1999, some 50 percent of blue-collar workers voted for the right-wing populist FPÖ.

Table 8. Reorientation of the voting behaviour of blue-collar workers in France and Austria

Voted for

FPÖ

Front National

1986

10

11

1988

11

1990

21

1993

15

1994

29

1995

34

27

1997

25

1999

47

Source: Lewis-Beck (2000: 72) and FESSEL-GfK, exit polls (1986–1999).

The reorientation of the voting behaviour of the working class is even stronger among younger voters: 57 percent of male voters below the age of 30 voted for the FPÖ in 1999, as did 46 percent of younger female workers. The traditional workers’ party, the SPÖ, managed to attract only 28 percent of younger male and female workers, yet in the 1986 parliamentary elections 55 percent of the younger workers had still voted for the Social Democratic Party, with only 13 percent supporting the Freedom Party (Figure 2).

Interesting attempts to explain this long-term blue-collar realignment are provided by Flanagan (1987) and Kitschelt (1994; 1995), who deal with the effects of the changes of societal cleavages on voting behaviour. In Flanagan’s model, advanced industrial societies are characterised by three main cleavages.

The first conflict axis represents the traditional cleavage between redistributive welfare policies and free market policies with the lowest possible degree of state intervention. This conflict has been a constitutive element of party competition in elections for decades. The second conflict axis is the cleavage between a policy of economic and technological growth and a policy that is focused on ecology and environmental protection. This cleavage contains a sub-dimension which relates to the conflict between groups with values of duty and acceptance (who basically share mterialist values) and groups oriented towards values of personal freedom and development (who have post-mterialist life styles) (Dalton 1996a; Inglehart 1997). Flanagan goes further and adds a third conflict axis to the two-dimensional conflict pattern of advanced industrial societies, namely the cleavage between a libertarian New Left and an authoritarian New Right, which is stirred up by polarising controversial issues such as immigration or the integration of immigrants. According to Flanagan, parts of the traditional blue-collar voters’ segment in particular get caught up in a cross-pressure situation, which may result in members of the working-class left voting for a party of the New Right. "Cross-pressured voters, for example, may fall on the left side on the Old Politics cleavage because of their working-class occupation and union membership ... but on the right side of the New Politics cleavage because of their authoritarian values" (Flanagan 1987: 1307).

While Flanagan’s model concentrates on the new socio-cultural cleavages, Kitschelt deals with the shift in the main axes of political competition as a consequence of market and work experience in advanced industrial societies. The central issue is the drifting apart of occupational experience in highly interactive, skilled white-collar jobs that entail responsibility from that of blue-collar jobs, which are less interactive, and often require only minor qualifications, but which are subjected to the much higher pressure of international competition and technological rationalisation (Bürklin and Klein 1998: 99-101).

However, this conflict is not only based on different occupational experiences and the interests linked to them but also on different attitudes. Accordingly, individuals in highly interactive, skilled occupations tend to have liberal to libertarian attitudes, whilst persons who are involved in mechanical working processes more often show right-wing authoritarian attitudes and attitude patterns (Arzheimer and Klein 1999). Thus, different market and occupational experiences combined with different attitudes may prompt blue-collar workers to break with the traditional left workers’ party and – provided these parties put up candidates – to turn to a right-wing populist party, which they think articulates their life and occupational experiences more accurately.

The social costs of the rapid economic and technological modernisation process, the feeling of belonging to a group of social losers that is denied promotion and career prospects as well as public esteem and recognition of their work intensify latent protest attitudes as well as diffuse fears of social decline and of being marginalised within the working class. These attitudes and fears are deliberately triggered, intensified and pooled together by the right-wing populist FPÖ, which focuses on structural grievances (privileges, criticism of élites, anti-institutional affects) and directly addresses latent xenophobic sentiment (Plasser, Ulram, and Seeber 1996: 182 f.). Moreover, younger, male blue-collar workers in particular project their personal lifestyle onto the image and appearance of the FPÖ leader, who succeeds in interpreting the signs and symbols of this subculture more sharply and with more determination than the traditionalistic labour and trade union representatives within the SPÖ. However, it takes concrete market and occupational experiences as well as the pressure of international competition, which has become stiffer and fiercer of late, alienating a large proportion of industrial workers from the representatives of their traditional interest groups, to allow the rise of the right-wing populist FPÖ to become the new workers’ party. "Given the sectoral division between competitive and domestic sectors, blue-collar voters, as a whole, should no longer be economically leftist in a pronounced way. At the same time, given that the bulk of blue-collar workers is involved in object- and document-processing, has comparatively little education, and is predominantly male, this occupational group may express above average disposition toward particularist and culturally parochial conceptions of citizenship and authoritarian decision making" (Kitschelt 1995: 9).

Compared with the spectacular reorientation of the voting behaviour of the Austrian working class, the changes in the voting behaviour of white-collar employees are moderate. To a large extent, the SPÖ has managed to stabilise its vote share among white-collar workers. Whilst 40 percent of the white-collar workers voted for the SPÖ in 1986, 36 percent did so in 1999. The ÖVP suffered higher losses among the new white-collar middle class. In 1986, 36 percent of white-collar workers voted for the ÖVP, whereas only 23 percent did so in 1999. The trend towards the FPÖ is comparatively moderate among white-collar workers. In 1986, 13 percent of white-collar workers voted for the FPÖ, compared with 23 percent in 1999, that is four percentage points below the national FPÖ result. The post-materialist Greens and the libertarian Liberal Forum made similarly high gains in the segment of white-collar voters. In 1999, 10 percent of white-collar workers voted for the Greens and 5 percent for the Liberal Forum. At 15 percent, the combined share of these two new-politics parties is significantly below the result of the 1994 elections, in which the two parties together attracted 25 percent of the white-collar vote.

Table 9. Changes in the voting behaviour of selected voter groups: white-collar workers

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

1986

40

36

13

7

*

1990

38

27

16

7

*

1994

29

25

22

12

11

1995

32

28

22

7

8

1999

36

23

22

10

5

Changes (1986–1999)

–4

–13

+9

+3

–6

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

The lack in social statistics of a clear definition of white-collar workers, a category which also includes employees who de facto perform mainly manual, low-skilled, mechanical jobs, makes sociological interpretations of voting difficult. Differentiating between white-collar workers in managerial positions and white-collar workers without executive or managerial functions reveals interesting differences:

In 1999, for instance, 33 percent of executive employees voted for the SPÖ and 32 percent for the ÖVP. In total, 19 percent of the executive employees lent their support to the FPÖ. The competitive situation as regards the election result among subordinate white-collar workers is a different one: 38 percent of this group voted for the SPÖ, 23 percent for the FPÖ and only 19 percent for the ÖVP. The Greens and the Liberal Forum received 11 and 5 percent respectively of the white-collar votes. In contrast to the situation in the working class segment, the SPÖ was able to maintain its representative lead among white-collar workers. The attractiveness of the ÖVP among the members of the white-collar middle class, however, has diminished considerably. The voting behaviour of civil servants and those working in the public sector is now much more volatile. Public-sector employees tend to vote for the SPÖ or ÖVP depending on the respective budgetary policies and any controversial reform plans proposed during parliamentary elections. The FPÖ’s share of this voter segment is below average, whilst that of the Greens is, unsurprisingly, above average.

Table 10. Changes in the voting behaviour of selected voter groups: civil servants, public-sector

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

1986

49

33

8

6

*

1990

40

30

14

8

*

1994

35

23

14

18

9

1995

48

20

17

6

6

1999

33

30

20

12

3

Changes (1986–1999)

–16

–3

+12

+6

–6

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

The voting behaviour of civil servants and those who work in the public sector relates to a cleavage that has also influenced Austrian voting behaviour since the eighties: the welfare state cleavage, as Dunleavy and Husbands (1985) called this new sectoral cleavage. In essence, this cleavage model deals with the fact that those belonging to the public and private sector are drifting apart in terms of voting behaviour and there is indeed potential for conflicts between the sheltered and the unsheltered production sectors. In their model Dunleavy and Husbands differentiate between three new cleavages in welfare state systems:

1. the cleavage resulting from different market and occupational experiences of employees in the public and the private sectors (production sector effect), 2. the cleavage between voters using mainly public services (e.g. housing, public transport) and voters consuming primarily private services at market prices (e.g. a home of one’s own, private car as means of transport, private school, etc.), which the authors call the consumer sector conflict (consumer sector effect), and 3. the latent conflict between voters who are primarily dependent on welfare transfer payments (e.g. pensions, maternity leave and other welfare payments), and voters who live mainly of sources of private income (e.g. salary from a private enterprise, capital yields, private insurance). The third cleavage is called the state-dependence effect. Thus, the model of Dunleavy and Husbands is not only an attempt to explain the decline in class voting, but also a step towards comprehending the reorientation in the voting behaviour of workers in the unsheltered sector.

The first signs of this sectoral cleavage have been visible in Austria since the mid-eighties and they have become more evident due to the collapse of the nationalised industries, the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and the demonopolisation of sheltered service and utility companies resulting from Austria’s accession to the European Union. In the long run, this affected the SPÖ, but even more the ÖVP, which fell back behind the FPÖ in private sector employees electoral support as early as 1994. While in 1986 there was a gap of 19 percentage points between the SPÖ and the FPÖ in the group of private sector employees, the SPÖ was only 5 percent ahead of the FPÖ in 1999. The FPÖ clearly and consistently taps the potential for tension and conflict inherent in the cleavage of public versus private sector. The SPÖ and ÖVP have suffered above-average losses among voters of the private sector since 1986. It was the FPÖ which has benefited from this development, capturing an above-average share of the vote in the private sector (Plasser, Ulram, and Seeber 1996: 190-192).

The cleavage of public versus private sector deepened during the nineties in Austria. This is can be seen from an above-average share of the vote for the FPÖ in the private sector and, conversely, in the tendency towards above-average shares of the vote for the Greens and the Liberal Forum among public-sector employees (particularly in the fields of public services, education and administration). Occupation and sector-specific trends in Austrian voting behaviour can be interpreted only to a limited extent by means of traditional micro-sociological explanations. New cleavage theories such as the "radical model" of Dunleavy and Husbands (1985) or Kitschelt’s model of the social positions (1994; 1995) offer realistic perspectives to explain the class de-alignment in Austrian voting behaviour. "In short, the radical model sees voters as a reflection of the political system’s ideological interpretation of social division. It is this emphasis on the impact of media and party debate which makes the radical model distinctive within the category of sociological approaches to voting" (Harrop and Miller 1992: 159).


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