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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

5. Gender and generation realignment


Since the eighties it has been possible to observe a gender-specific differentiation in Austrian voting behaviour. In the course of the nineties this gender gap widened (Hofinger and Ogris 1996). By the late nineties it was perfectly legitimate to speak of the existence of two gender-specific "party systems" in Austria. Since the seventies, the majority of Western European party systems have seen a remarkable gender-specific differentiation of voting behaviour, which has taken place in three phases (Norris 1999). 1. The phase of traditional voting behaviour, which was characterised by a clear tendency on the part of women to vote for parties committed to denominational or conservative values. 2. The phase of convergence or alignment of the voting behaviour of men and women which led to a clear increase in the attractiveness of the SPÖ to female voters in elections in Austria. 3. The phase of a gender realignment – especially among younger, qualified and self-confident women – in a clear trend towards post-mterialist or libertarian parties.

This gender gap is reinforced by a clear distancing on the part of women from newly formed right-wing populist protest parties, whose polarising issues as well as conflict-oriented affect management aimed at arousing negative emotions is particularly strongly disapproved of by younger women. The widening of the gender gap is caused, firstly, by increased educational and qualification opportunities for the younger generation of women, as well as an active and more self-confident role definition with regard to equal rights in personal relationships and at the workplace, and secondly, by specific issue preferences and general outlooks with women placing special emphasis on humanitarian and liberal development values such as ecological and social considerations. This, however, is also happening against the background of a "sudden increase in political awareness" among younger women, as evidenced by their growing interest in politics, increased involvement and active civic self-confidence (political efficacy), as well as by a much higher level of political knowledge than younger men.

From an international perspective, it is US voting behaviour in particular that provides impressive evidence of a gender gap. This gap is widening with time and manifests itself in Congress and presidential elections in the form of different gender-specific majorities for the Republicans (among men) and Democrats (among women) (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde 1999; Clark and Rempel 1997; Miller and Merrill 1996). Studies carried out in Great Britain (Norris 1999) and France (Boy and Nayer 2000) also provide empirical evidence of a gender gap in voting behaviour, while only minor signs of a gender gap could be seen in the 1998 elections to the German Bundestag (Neu and Molitor 1999). In Switzerland it is particularly the right-wing populist SVP that causes a gender-specific polarisation in voting behaviour (Kriesi, Linder, and Klöti 1998). The situation in Austria is different, however, since gender-specific differentiation in voting behaviour has now become a new cleavage.

Table 11. The gender gap in parliamentary elections (1979–1999)

M – W in percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

Gender Gap (points)

1979

–1

0

+1

2

1983

–1

–1

+2

–1

5

1986

–1

–5

+5

–1

12

1990

–5

–4

+8

–1

18

1994

–2

–5

+11

–4

–2

24

1995

–5

–3

+11

–1

–1

21

1999

–4

–1

+11

–4

–1

21

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

The alignment of the voting behaviour of men and women, which took place in the seventies (Hofinger and Ogris 1996), still resulted in minor gender-specific deviations in voting behaviour in the early eighties. If the gender gap is calculated as the sum of the percentage differences in the votes cast by men and by women for the parties represented in parliament, the difference in percentage points was only 2 percent in 1979. In 1983 this gender difference rose to 5 percentage points. It was only in the 1986 parliamentary elections, with the beginning of the strategic and stylistic re-formation of the right-wing populist FPÖ, that the gender gap began to widen. With a gender difference of 24 percentage points, the 1994 parliamentary elections mark the peak of gender-specific differences in Austrian voting behaviour to date. The gender gap of 21 percentage points in the subsequent 1995 and 1999 elections again pointed to striking differences in the voting behaviour of men and women as compared to Western European dimensions.

Not only did the gender gap widen in the nineties, but there were also far-reaching changes concerning the gender-specific party majorities. Since 1994, the FPÖ has been the second-largest party among the male electorate, and since 1999 it has been the predominant party among male voters with – an albeit fluctuating – 32 percent of the vote. Despite considerable gains and a steady upward trend at the polls, the FPÖ, with 21 percent of the vote, still ranks third among female voters behind the SPÖ (35 percent) and the ÖVP (27 percent). The gender-specific attractiveness of the Greens and the Liberal Forum, however, shows a different picture. These two post-materialist/libertarian parties score much better among women than among men. The Greens in particular managed to attract far more female than male voters in 1999.

Table 12. Gender-specific voting behaviour (1986–1999)

In percent

 

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

1986

Men

42

38

13

4

-

 

Women

43

43

7

5

-

1990

Men

39

29

20

4

-

 

Women

44

33

12

5

-

1994

Men

34

25

29

6

5

 

Women

36

30

18

9

6

1995

Men

35

26

27

4

5

 

Women

40

29

16

5

6

1999

Men

31

25

32

5

3

 

Women

35

27

21

9

4

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

Behind the gender-specific differences in voting behaviour, however, there are complex patterns correlating with factors such as age and educational and professional status. A highly concentrated duopoly of the two coalition parties SPÖ and ÖVP among female pensioners contrasts with a wide-ranging multi-party system among younger women with higher education qualifications, in which it is no longer possible to identify a "predominant" party. The voting behaviour of women under 30, among which the FPÖ has become the strongest party with a share of 30 percent, is remarkable. About 25 percent of younger women, however, voted either for the Greens or for the Liberal Forum. With a share of a mere 15 percent, the ÖVP ranks fourth among younger women behind the Greens.

Table 13. Voting behaviour of women in the 1999 parliamentary elections

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

Women

35

27

21

9

4

Female pensioners

45

32

19

2

1

Working women

32

26

22

12

5

Housewives

33

24

22

10

3

Younger women with higher education

28

26

18

16

10

Younger women

25

15

30

19

6

Younger female blue-collar workers

44

13

34

4

1

Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit poll (1999).

When examined in a more differentiated way, the gender gap in Austria actually resembles a branched canyon. The ÖVP’s considerable lack of attractiveness to voters – especially to younger, more qualified women – contrasts with the above-average share of the vote held by post-materialist and libertarian parties. A disproportionately high number of SPÖ voters among female pensioners, who now represent 13 percent of the SPÖ vote, contrasts with above-average support for the FPÖ among women under 30 and younger female blue-collar workers, who today make up 11 percent of the entire FPÖ vote. However, younger women also account for 25 percent of the vote of the Greens and the Liberal Forum. The emergence of differentiated voting behaviour by the younger generation of female voters is described as "gender realignment" in international electoral studies, thus focusing on the reorientation of younger women’s voting behaviour.

Long-term changes in the voting behaviour trends of working women provide the first evidence of gender realignment. Between 1986 and 1999 support for the SPÖ and ÖVP decreased by 14 and 11 percent respectively. While the SPÖ and ÖVP together managed to capture 83 percent of the vote in 1986, their combined share of the vote was only 58 percent in 1999. In 1986 a mere 7 percent of working class women voted for the FPÖ, while as many as 22 percent did so in 1999. With a combined share of 21 percent of the votes, post-materialist and libertarian parties scored highest among working women in 1994. In 1999, 12 percent of the electorate voted for the Greens and 5 percent for the Liberal Forum.

Table 14. Changes in the voting behaviour of working women

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

1986

46

37

7

7

1990

40

34

13

6

1994

32

27

17

12

9

1995

35

26

20

7

8

1999

32

26

22

12

4

Changes (1986–1999)

–14

–11

+15

+5

–4

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

The voting behaviour of younger men and women provides helpful information on gender and generation-specific reorientation (gender-generation realignment). The gender difference here is 29 points, illustrating the extent of the gender gap in this group of voters. However, further notable gender-specific highs and lows, which are not in evidence to such a large degree in any other group of voters, also deserve attention.

Table 15. Gender-Generation-Gap: Differences in the voting behaviour of younger women and men

In percent

SPÖ

ÖVP

FPÖ

Greens

LIF

Women

26

16

31

20

6

Men

25

19

41

8

3

PPD

+1

–3

–10

+12

+3

PPD = percent point difference.

Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit poll (1999).

In 1999, only 42 percent of younger women voted for either the SPÖ or ÖVP. In 1986, the equivalent figure was as high as 76 percent. With 31 percent of the vote, the FPÖ has not only become the predominant party among younger female voters, but has also gained 11 percent since 1995. 20 percent of younger women voted for the Greens, who managed to capture the highest share of votes among this group of female voters. Including votes cast for the Liberal Forum, 26 percent of younger women lent their support to a post-mterialist or libertarian party. The gender-generation realignment (Norris 1999) in the voting behaviour of younger women is obviously a bidirectional re-orientation: towards the FPÖ, and at the same time, towards post-mterialist or libertarian parties. Both directions have meanwhile become competitive poles, while the two traditional parties SPÖ and – to a greater extent ÖVP – have become far less attractive to young female voters.

However, the voting behaviour of younger men also shows a gender-generation realignment, albeit a one-directional re-orientation towards the FPÖ. With a share of 41 percent, the FPÖ is by far the predominant party in the segment of younger, male voters. Only 8 percent of younger voters voted for the Greens, with a mere 3 percent casting their vote for the Liberal Forum. The gender difference with regard to the Greens (12 points) is more distinct than for the FPÖ (10 points). Just as with younger women, only 44 percent of the votes of younger men vote for the two government or coalition parties, yet in 1986, the SPÖ and ÖVP still managed to attract 75 percent of younger voters between them. The trends in the voting behaviour of the younger generation of voters illustrate the steady increase in generation realignment in Austrian voting behaviour to the detriment of the two traditional parties, the SPÖ and ÖVP (Plasser and Ulram 1999). Among younger men, the FPÖ has become the competitive challenger to the SPÖ and ÖVP, which together lead by a mere 3 percent. Meanwhile, among younger women, the FPÖ, but also the Greens and the Liberal Forum, have forced the two government parties onto the defensive. Only 41 percent of younger women voted for either the SPÖ or ÖVP in 1999.

The steady decline in attractiveness of the traditional parties – SPÖ and ÖVP – among the voters of the younger, up-and-coming generation is clearly confirmed by the trend in the voting behaviour of first-time voters, both male and female. While the SPÖ and ÖVP managed to attract 97 percent of first-time voters in the 1979 parliamentary elections, this figure dropped to a mere 42 percent twenty years later. By contrast, the FPÖ increased its share among first-time voters from 3 percent in 1979 to 38 percent in the 1999 parliamentary elections.

An interim empirical assessment of the trends and patterns in Austrian voting behaviour in the late nineties defines the key determinants of electoral competition:

1. a gender-generation realignment, i.e. a far-reaching re-orientation in the voting behaviour of the younger generation of voters, in which gender combined with age and education have led to new voter coalitions;

2. a realignment of the voting behaviour of the Austrian working class to a degree unprecedented in Western Europe;

3. the emergence of new sectoral cleavages, with the public versus private sector cleavage being of particular relevance to Austrian voting behaviour;

4. a polarisation of values or a new value cleavage between a New Right with authoritarian emphasis and the New Left with a predominantly post-materialist/libertarian orientation;

5. the persistent pattern of negative voting, i.e. a form of voting behaviour that is primarily motivated by diffuse protest attitudes and generalised discontent, and which is particularly susceptible to the right-wing populist affect management of the FPÖ;

6. signs of a confrontational issue polarisation, as has become apparent in the issues of immigration and integration versus exclusion and xenophobic sentiment;

7. a demobilisation – albeit moderate by international standards – as can be seen in the decline of electoral turnout; and finally

8. the probable influence of a general mood created by the mass media on a voter and party environment that is going through a period of transition.


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