The Austrian People’s Party’s existential crisis

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Liam Hoare is the Europe editor for Moment Magazine and author of “The Vienna Briefing” newsletter on Austrian politics and culture. 

VIENNA — Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer has been in office for less than a year and is already fighting for his political life.  

On August 1, a pair of stories simultaneously appeared in Austria’s two widely circulated freesheets, Heute and Österreich, quoting senior sources from his People’s Party (ÖVP) and outlining their “secret plan” to defenestrate the former interior minister. 

Mere weeks after becoming chancellor, Nehammer had been faced with the invasion of Ukraine and its effects on his country, which is heavily dependent on Russian fossil fuels. His handling of the subsequent energy and cost-of-living crises has been directionless and ineffectual, with the rate of inflation hitting its highest levels since March 1975. And he hasn’t helped himself either, joking at a recent party conference that unless the ÖVP got a grip on inflation, it would be left with only two choices: “alcohol or psychotropic drugs.” 

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At the national level, the party’s polling figures are plummeting, and Nehammer is now the least popular head of government in the world. Were an election held tomorrow, his party would likely finish third, behind both the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). This is all bad enough on its own, of course, but what’s really unnerving senior party sources is the trickle-down effect at the state and local levels, as the ÖVP has found itself in the midst of a larger internal crisis.  

This September, the party faces a key electoral test in Tyrol, an ÖVP heartland where, under normal circumstances, the party would expect to win at least 40 percent of the vote. This time around, however, polling indicates it will be lucky to reach 30 percent.  

And if Nehammer were to be dethroned after this Tyrolian vote, but before similar critical electoral tests take place in the states of Lower Austria and Salzburg in early 2023 — though his camp has dismissed this idea as silly speculation — his replacement would then become Austria’s fourth chancellor in just 12 months.  

Former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had resigned in October 2021, amid a corruption scandal that saw state prosecutors raid the federal chancellery. His replacement, Alexander Schallenberg, then lasted less than two months, having failed to secure the support of the party’s state governors. Nehammer was their choice — and now they’re experiencing buyer’s remorse. 

On one level, the ÖVP’s internal crisis is simply symptomatic of a party that’s been in government, either as the senior or junior coalition partner, since 1986. 

The contemporary ÖVP is like a ghost ship, drifting listlessly in the night. In lieu of an overarching political vision, a raison d’être, its politics are mere clientelism — tax and spending policies catering to key electoral groups like farmers, small business owners and middle-class families. Meanwhile, its corruption scandals — in particular, the “advertising affair” where government funds were used to pay for sexed-up opinion polling favorable to Kurz, investigators believe — arose out of departments like the finance ministry, which have long been in the ÖVP’s grip. 

Yet, the party’s present predicament appears to run even deeper. The ÖVP is in the throes of an existential crisis, one with roots that are decades deep and reflect tectonic shifts in Austrian electoral politics. 

In the decades following World War II, the country was politically and economically cleaved in twain between the SPÖ and ÖVP. The two ruled in a grand coalition for two decades, regularly winning between 85 and 90 percent of the vote between them. Then things began to change. 

First, the ÖVP won an absolute majority in 1966. Then, the SPÖ governed alone from 1971 until 1983 — a period of low unemployment and social liberalization during which, under Bruno Kreisky’s leadership, Austria punched above its weight on the international stage. However, this did not last. 

The SPÖ’s loss of that absolute majority gave the ÖVP a taste of things to come. The Social Democrats’ share of the vote declined from 51.03 percent in 1979 to 21.18 percent 40 years later, their broad electoral coalition pulled apart by two emergent political forces: the Green movement in the 1980s and the far-right in the 1990s. Over those years, the ties that bound the urban liberal bourgeoisie to Austria’s diminished working-class grew increasingly loose. And today, their interest in issues, from immigration and human rights to the environment, seem largely irreconcilable. 

Even though the ÖVP experienced a similar decline over the same period, winning only 23.99 percent of the vote in the 2013 general election, when Sebastian Kurz finally took over the party in 2017, it led to two knockout election victories. It almost seemed as if he had found a formula for success, using immigration as a wedge issue to draw in far-right voters. 

In hindsight, however, those victories were a kind of false hope. On one end of the spectrum, that hard line on immigration is among the factors that pushed the ÖVP’s liberal wing into the arms of the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) party. And on the other end, with Kurz now gone, the party’s far-right voters have slowly drifted back toward their natural home in the FPÖ. 

In many ways, Austria has been a forerunner, a preview of the fragmentation and reorganization of electoral politics witnessed in France and Germany in recent years. It signaled the death of two-party politics and rote party allegiance based on class, age and profession, and hailed the emergence of new political forces on the left, center and far-right.  

Over the course of the past 40 years, Austria has evolved from a two-party system to a five-party system, while governing formations like the Ampel left-liberal-green coalition, which once seemed unthinkable and unwieldly, now seem both plausible and desirable to voters. 

And at the center of the ÖVP’s existential crisis is the crucial realization that the era of the Volkspartei — of the political party as a broad church — is now well and truly over,