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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

6. The rise of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ)


With 26.9 percent of the vote and 52 seats, the FPÖ became the second largest party in the Austrian parliament at the 1999 general election (having won the same number of seates but 415 votes more than the ÖVP). The FPÖ is therefore by far the most successful right-wing populist party in Western Europe. Its rise has been consolidated by three long-term trends in Austrian voting behaviour:

  • A blue-collar realignment: since 1999 the FPÖ has been the strongest party among blue-collar workers.

  • A generation-based realignment: the FPÖ is also the strongest party among voters under 30 years of age.

  • A gender realignment: the FPÖ is the strongest party among male voters.

It is perfectly legitimate to speak of a spectacular development as regards the reorientation of voting behaviour among Austrian blue-collar workers. 48 percent of foremen and skilled workers voted for the FPÖ, whilst only 31 percent of them voted for the SPÖ, the traditional blue-collar workers’ party. Even among semi-skilled and unskilled workers, the FPÖ has become the strongest party with a share of 45 percent of the vote. Only 40 percent of the members of this group voted for the Social Democrats, with a mere 10 percent supporting the ÖVP. The reorientation in the voting behaviour of Austrian workers has been dramatic. While the SPÖ still enjoyed the support of 57 percent of Austrian workers in 1986, this figure had decreased to a mere 35 percent by 1999. In other words, the Social Democratic Party has lost 22 percentage points in its core group within the last 13 years. Over the same period, the ÖVP’s share of the vote among workers was down 50 percent. In 1999, a mere 12 percent of workers voted for the ÖVP, whereas the FPÖ became the strongest party among workers. While in 1986 only ten percent voted for the FPÖ, 47 percent did so in 1999.

Due to strong gains in other professional groups, the proportion of (blue-collar) workers among FPÖ voters has at the same time diminished overall. 27 percent of FPÖ voters now come from the working class, compared with 35 percent in 1995. The rise of the FPÖ to become the predominant workers’ party indicates deep changes in the social basis of the Austrian parties. The political reorientation of workers on such a scale is unprecedented in Western Europe. Twenty years ago, four percent of Austrian workers voted for the Freedom Party, yet this had risen to 47 percent by 1999. This means that the FPÖ share of the vote rose more than tenfold during this period. As in the preceding parliamentary elections, the gender-specific composition of the party’s vote shows some significant differences. Once again, the structure of the FPÖ’s support is predominantly male: 62 percent of FPÖ voters are male. On the other hand, women predominate among Green voters: 63 percent of the Green vote is female. Thus, the Greens have a larger proportion of women among their voters than the Liberal Forum.

Table 16. Voting behaviour of selected voter segments (parliamentary elections 1999)

In percent

Freedom Party

(FPÖ)

Social Democrats

(SPÖ)

People’s Party

(ÖVP)

Male Voters

32

31

26

Voters under 30 years

35

25

17

Blue-collar voters

47

35

12

Younger, male blue-collar voters

57

29

10

Younger, male voters

41

25

19

Total

27

33

27

Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit poll (N = 2,200).

In terms of party type, the Freedom Party is a protest-oriented, right-wing populist working-class party. While only about 10 percent of blue-collar workers in Germany voted for a right-wing party at the parliamentary elections in 1998, and 25 percent of French blue-collar workers voted for the Front National in 1997, 47 percent of working class voters in Austria supported the Freedom Party.

Exit poll data provide an insight into the motives of FPÖ voters: the most important reasons given for voting in favour of the FPÖ were a desire for political change and rejection of the ruling Grand Coalition. The anti-immigrants issue (xenophobic sentiment) was of central significance for 15 percent of FPÖ voters, followed by protest and "voting-the-rascals-out" motives (13 percent). Mr. Haider’s image and personality were listed as an important reason by 13 percent of FPÖ voters.

Table 17. Motives of FPÖ Voters

Main reason for voting FPÖ

In percent

1. Time for change, rejection of the Grand Coalition

27

2. Anti-foreigner sentiment, anti-immigration motives

15

3. Protest, "voting the rascals out", disenchantment with parties

13

4. Image and leadership of Mr Haider

13

5. Positive image of the party, party of the ordinary people

15

6. Special policies (aid to families, flat tax, economic policies)

16

Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit poll (N = 2,200).

The dominant motives to vote for the FPÖ have changed since Mr. Haider positioned the FPÖ as a right-wing populist party back in 1986. Followed by protest and anti-establishment effects at the outset, resentment vis-à-vis foreigners has increasingly been added since the mid-nineties. In 1999, the strongest motive to vote for the FPÖ was the call for a political change and changes in style and policies.

Table 18. Changing reasons to vote for FPÖ (1986–1999)

Main reason for voting FPÖ

In percent

1986

1990

1994

1995

1999

Time for change, rejection of Grand Coalition

10

7

7

12

27

Foreigner resentment

3

7

12

12

15

Image and leadership of Mr Haider

54

23

17

19

13

Protest, Scandals, Party weariness

16

38

32

20

13

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

The early nineties marked the peak of anti-foreigner sentiment. In 1991 approximately two out of three Austrians believed that there were too many foreigners in the country and feared that the influence of foreigners would bring more crime and social free-riders into Austria. Nearly half of the adult population was afraid of foreign competition on the labour market or saw a threat to the Austrian way of life. Five years later, the fears of any threat to traditional way of life and national identity, or to public security, had subsided somewhat. At the same time, the percentage of respondents who considered that foreigners enriched Austria as a country had increased. There was no change in the assertion that foreigners are mostly employed in the least attractive segments of the labour market (1996: 84 percent) and that the Austrian economy needs immigrant workers (1996: 58 percent). Nevertheless, the negative view on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe remained unchanged (1996: 52 percent); with greater disapproval in 1996 (72 percent) of an increased influx of immigrants with children than in 1991 (59 percent).

Table 19. Attitudes towards foreigners and immigrants (1990–1996)

In percent

 

Agree

Disagree

The numerous foreigners constitute a threat to our way of life and our Austrian identity

1991

1996

45

38

51

59

The numerous foreigners take away jobs from Austrians

1991

1996

49

46

47

53

Foreign immigration goes hand in hand with crime and the misuse of social benefits

1991

1996

62

56

35

43

There are already too many foreigners in Austria

1990

1991

1996

67

64

64

29

34

34

Source: FESSEL-GfK, general surveys (1990–1996).

During the past few years the FPÖ has mainly been able to mobilise two value clusters of Austrian voters:

1.The "Welfare State Chauvinists" cluster (14 % of the total electorate) and

2. The "New Authoritarian Right" cluster (10 % of the total electorate).

Welfare state chauvinists feel threatened by the economic and technological development. These are younger, low-skilled blue-collar workers in the private sector, who view the ongoing process of modernisation, the increasing competition at work and the presence of foreign workers and immigrants as a threat to their social and professional status. These "losers in the modernisation processes" feel neglected, so that their response is a diffuse protest and rejection of foreigners. They are a strategically important target group for Mr. Haider and the FPÖ’s professional management of negative emotions. Members of the "Welfare State Chauvinists" cluster represent one fifth of the FPÖ electorate.

Among the "New Authoritarian Right" xenophobic sentiment and preference for law and order policies are joined by a rejection of the egalitarian principles of the welfare state. These voters prefer an authoritarian leadership style and view the democratic system quite critically. In common with the welfare state chauvinists, they share a considerable scepticism towards the European integration and the planned enlargement of the EU. Six out of ten are male blue-collar workers, small shopkeepers or male members of the war-generation. Members of the New Authoritarian Right represent one fourth of the FPÖ electorate or roughly seven percent of the total Austrian electorate.

Table 20. Xenophobic sentiment as decisive voting reason

In percent

1999

Male FPÖ voters older than 60

35

Unskilled, male FPÖ voters

30

Blue-collar workers voting for FPÖ

25

Total FPÖ voters

15

Source: FESSEL-GfK, exit poll (N = 2,200).

Compared with far-right parties like the French Front National or the German Republikaner or DVU, the Austrian Freedom Party lacks programmatic and ideological consistency. With the exception of issues like immigration and the integration of foreign workers, the party platform is a mixture of conservative fiscal policies, government cutbacks and populist social policy proposals. In the field of economic policy in particular, there is a remarkable convergence with some of the policies of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). Concerning the future of Austria’s security policy, the Freedom Party has an outspoken preference for abandoning the status of neutrality and joining NATO in the long run. Contrary to the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, the Freedom Party is critical toward the process of European integration and the planned enlargement of the European Union. Overall, the policies of the Freedom Party are characterised by strategic flexibility; it adapts its messages to fluctuating public sentiment.

Within the Austrian electorate there has not been a detectable shift toward far-right positions. The majority of Austrian voters and even a majority of FPÖ voters regard themselves as being somewhere in the political centre.

Table 21. Ideological position of the Austrian electorate

Position themselves as...

In percent

far left

left

centre

right

far right

Total electorate

1

16

69

12

1

FPÖ voters

0

6

70

20

3

Source: FESSEL-GfK, general survey 1999 (N = 2,000).

While only a minority of Austrian voters clearly position themselves on the right, the FPÖ as a party is clearly placed on the right wing of the ideological spectrum. 31 percent of the respondents characterise the FPÖ as being on the political "right", 29 percent even describe the FPÖ as being on the "far right".

Table 22. Perception of the Freedom Party by the Austrian electorate

Position the FPÖ as ...

(In percent)

far left

left

centre

right

far right

Total electorate

4

7

13

31

29

FPÖ voters

3

7

24

40

16

Source: Fessel-GfK, general survey 1999 (N = 2,000).

The situation appears more problematic if a differentiation is made between the electorate and the leadership level of the FPÖ. Some top politicians obviously have an ambivalent attitude toward the Austrian past and the Nazi regime. Unacceptable statements like Mr. Haider’s comment on the "orderly employment policy" ("ordentliche Beschäftigungspolitik") of the Third Reich – which led to his forced resignation as governor of Carinthia – or his description of concentration camps as "punishment camps" have repeatedly shocked the Austrian as well as the international public. Although Haider publicly apologised for these statements last November and expressed his regrets at any hurt caused, the ambivalence and questionable choice of words of some FPÖ politicians still remains a problematic issue.

However, in terms of FPÖ attitudes towards the democratic system, the prevailing law and the parliamentary rules of the game, the FPÖ moves within a frame of constitutional consent. The FPÖ accepts the principles of democracy. Instead of trying to limit democracy – as requested by authoritarian right-wing parties – the FPÖ does in fact stand for an increased use of direct democracy procedures such as public initiatives and referenda. In its attempts to be acknowledged as a potential coalition partner in the Austrian government, the FPÖ even removed the focus on its German-national past from its programme and party platform and is now trying to present itself as an "Austrian-national" party of renewal.

In the early nineties the political landscape in Austria changed: immigration and its consequences for the labour market, education and the housing situation in urban areas, economic restructuring and resulting unemployment, the costs and distributive effects of welfare policies, and questions of national independence versus European integration made their way onto the public agenda. Particularly among the lower social and educational groups of the population, these changes were often met with diffuse fears of worsening social conditions and economic prospects, as well as with preoccupations about a loss of traditional socio-cultural identities. The FPÖ redirects its oppositional impetus from political renewal to "politics of resentment", mixing up fears and preoccupations with an ever more aggressive attack against the political class. The dominant issues are immigration and law-and-order politics, the rejection of Austria’s accession to the European Union and the failure of the governing coalition to meet these new challenges.

The party’s neo-populist appeal is combined with a strategy of active issue-management or agenda-setting, often in accordance with the tabloid press, but also by constantly shifting the emphasis between the individual issues according to current circumstances. The attack is directed against the political class at home one day, and against "the bureaucrats in Brussels" the next day. One day it focuses on xenophobic sentiments against "the threat from abroad", the next it moves to resentment towards "those at the top". It is important to note that this strategy also exploits criticism levelled by liberal or left-wing opponents or quality newspapers. Especially ideologically motivated critics can easily be transformed into "enemies from outside", which serves the purpose of welding what was a loosely bound group into a more stable voter-coalition ("us against them").

The FPÖ’s rise to become the most successful right-wing populist party in Western Europe at the current time is inseparably linked to structural changes and the symptoms of a breaking down of Austria’s traditional party system. Essential preconditions for the FPÖ’s electoral success are the erosion of traditional party alignment, the dissolution of socio-cultural milieus and orientations linked to them, and the diminishing capability of the major parties of old to integrate and mobilise. The activation of latent anti-party sentiments, a diffuse party-weariness and anti-institutional effects as a reaction to an ever increasing confidence gap prepare the sounding-board for populist arguments and attacks.

An emotionally loaded protest culture among voters is complemented by new socio-economic threats, fears of modernisation and marginalisation, fears of a possible loss of social status, and crises of identity and direction. The rise of the FPÖ is dependent on cyclical issues and problems. Thus, the ups and (short-lived) downs of the party follow the live cycles of certain issues and problems in the public debate (e.g. political scandals, social problems, the development of the immigration issue, crime, intensified conflicts within the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government).

Much more than in the case of other parties, the electoral success of the FPÖ depends on its media presence and performance. Due to its deficient organisation, its weak anchorage in the social structure, and its extreme dependence on public sentiment and emotion, the FPÖ needs an above-average media response. More than the other parties, the FPÖ must try to influence the media issue agenda in an active way, getting polemic issues on the public agenda, and diverting the public attention to what it defines as problems.

As a result, the FPÖ is a party that is extremely focused on its leader and candidates. The FPÖ virtually presents itself as a "TV or media-party", a symbolic mobilisation agency which tries to capitalise on latent protest attitudes, resentment, and deeply rooted frustration. The success of the FPÖ is inseparably linked to the political communication skills, the populist impression management and the strong rhetoric of its top actor. Faced with an electorate that is in a state of flux and extremely dependent on sentiment, the FPÖ finds itself under constant pressure for mobilisation.

The electoral success of the FPÖ depends on its ability to pursue its proactive issue-management, sharpen criticism, strengthen emotions, mobilise latent resentment and polarise the electorate; all this by demonstrating cool and calculated professionalism. The FPÖ needs the attention of the media for its strategic voter management. Populist actors need public resonance, and the mass media provide a necessary and indispensable sounding-board for neo-populism.

Any explanation of the FPÖ’s rise has to focus on the specific characteristics of the Austrian parties and the Austrian system of government. The electoral success of the Freedom Party is based on the following factors:

  • 13 years of a Grand Coalition between SPÖ and ÖVP resulted in an "oversized coalition", an oppositional vacuum that was successfully filled by the FPÖ.

  • A de-alignment and the erosion of traditional party loyalties in connection with increasing party weariness, anti-party sentiments, and anti-establishment effects.

  • The "colonisation" of the public sector and the state-owned industries by the two governing parties, a system of "Proporz", cronyism and patronage.

  • New cleavages between the public and private sector – unskilled blue-collar workers in particular felt under threat from economic and technological changes.

  • An increase in resentment towards foreigners in spite of a restrictive immigration policy, the fear of increasing crime, and, in some cases, worries about Austria’s traditional cultural identity, worries that the FPÖ has played on.

  • The entry of Austria into the European Union and, above all, the planned enlargement of the EU, which is viewed with extreme scepticism by large sections of the Austrian electorate.

  • The image of Joeg Haider, his professional "impression management" and his ability to mobilise protest votes by stirring up deeply rooted resentment and prejudice.

  • The growing desire for a general change in Austrian politics, which has been fulfilled by the SPÖ and ÖVP to only a very small degree in the last few years.

The future of right-wing populism in Austria will largely be determined by the fact that the FPÖ is now a partner in the new coalition government. This means that the FPÖ will be under pressure to change its image, style, and policies from that of a confrontational opposition party to a reliable and competent governing party. At the moment it is still too early to speculate about the consequences of the FPÖ’s new role. Will the redesigned policies of the Freedom Party be attractive to de-aligned protest voters? Will Joerg Haider – who resigned as official FPÖ leader end of February 2000 but remained as the strategic power center of the party – support the policies of the coalition government even when large sections of the FPÖ electorate – especially voters from low-income groups – oppose the planned cutbacks? Will the new politics of conflict and the negative reaction of the international public mobilise or demobilise the Freedom Party’s grassroots? Only one thing is certain: the future of right-wing populism in Austria is as unclear as the reaction of an unstable, fluctuating, and de-aligned electorate.


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