In a year when the two largest economies in the European Union, Germany and France, held general elections, Austria's Oct. 15 vote doesn't appear to be particularly crucial for the future of the Continental bloc. But the Austrian elections will take place when the European Union is about to start discussing its future after a decade of crisis. This debate will present Central and Eastern Europe — regions that Vienna sees as its natural sphere of influence — with a dilemma, as countries will have to decide whether to support deeper Continental integration. If opinion polls are to be trusted, Austria's nationalist right will make a strong showing and may even enter into the next government. An administration in Vienna that is reluctant to participate in the next phase of European integration and is willing to side with other Euroskeptic governments in the region will only make it harder for the European Union to reach a consensus on what to do next.
A Centrist Coalition Collapses
Austria's political system has been stable since the end of World War II. The country's two largest political forces, the center-right Austrian People's Party (OVP) and the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO), have governed together for most of the past seven decades. Their cooperation generated enough political and economic stability to make Austria one of the most prosperous countries in Europe.
But by the early 1980s this political system started to show signs of exhaustion. The emergence of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) challenged the supremacy of Austria's mainstream parties and forced them to adapt to the new political environment. As a result, the FPO was accepted as a coalition partner, first by the center-left in the mid-1980s and then by the center-right in the early 2000s. This acceptance marked a difference with neighboring Germany. In Germany, far-right parties have been on the fringes of the political system since the end of World War II, for the most part because they attracted only a small number of votes and the largest political parties refused to cooperate with them. In Austria, on the contrary, voting for far-right parties is not a taboo and their peers are willing to accept them as valid government partners.
The OVP and the SPO have belonged to a coalition government since 2007, but the past few years have been turbulent for them. A combination of the international financial crisis and a lack of domestic reform took its toll on the Austrian economy, and the country's average gross domestic product growth was only 0.7 percent between 2008 and 2016. More important, the refugee crisis dealt a severe blow to Austria in 2015 as the country became both a transit hub and the final destination for thousands of migrants. That year, Austria was the third-largest recipient of asylum applications in the European Union after Germany and Sweden, in absolute terms. The political impact of the refugee crisis becomes even clearer when considered in relative terms: While Germany (a large country of 82 million people) received 5,441 asylum applications per million inhabitants in 2015, Austria (a small country of roughly 9 million people) received 9,970 applications per million inhabitants.
Voters' exasperation with Austria's mainstream parties became tangible in last year's presidential election, when the OVP and the SPO failed to qualify for the second round of the vote for the first time in seven decades. Moreover, the FPO candidate lost by a narrow margin against an independent candidate in the runoff election, showing the extent to which the popularity of the anti-immigration right had grown. The presidential election only exacerbated frictions between the OVP and the SPO, and the two parties announced the end of their coalition in May, triggering snap elections set for October. Since then, the FPO has been polling strongly on a campaign that promises to protect Austria's sovereignty and national identity while drastically reducing immigration. The FPO's success in opinion polls has forced its moderate rivals, especially the OVP, to adopt a tougher stance on immigration.
The Far-Right Returns to Power?
After Oct. 15, several scenarios are possible. The OVP and the SPO could once again form a grand coalition, something that the European Union would welcome. But their relationship is tense, and both parties have said they do not want to revisit their traditional alliance. As a result, both the OVP and the SPO could reach out to the FPO to form a government. This means that the FPO has a good chance of entering the next Austrian administration — a situation that would certainly concern the European Union, considering the FPO's position on European affairs.
The FPO is Euroskeptic, but it is not a single-issue, anti-EU party like the United Kingdom's UKIP. The FPO is critical of the process of EU integration, wants to protect Austria's sovereignty from the supranational institutions in Brussels and is skeptical of accepting new members into the European Union. As a result, a government including the FPO would be reluctant to support initiatives to deepen economic and political integration in the European Union, would defend moves to enhance the protection of the bloc's external borders and would advocate measures to better protect Austrian workers and companies from foreign competition. In its push against the European Union's centralizing efforts, Austria could side with rebel countries such as Hungary or Poland. In fact, FPO chief Heinz-Christian Strache said he would like Austria to strengthen its ties with the Visegrad Group, which comprises Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Many Austrians feel that the European Union jeopardizes Austria's neutrality and national sovereignty. After World War II, neutrality became the cornerstone of Austria's foreign policy. While most of Western Europe rushed to join NATO and the European Economic Community (the European Union's predecessor), Austria chose to remain a neutral interlocutor between the Continent's east and west. To this day Austria is not a NATO member, and Vienna only joined the European Union in 1995, after the end of the Cold War. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey (taken in spring 2017), only 42 percent of Austrians "tend to trust" the European Union, and only 35 percent had a "positive" image of the bloc. This explains why political narratives that promise to protect Austria's national sovereignty and neutrality are so popular.
But Austria probably will refrain from making any moves that would jeopardize its membership in the European Union, even if the FPO is part of the government. After all, roughly 70 percent of Austria's exports go to EU countries; Germany and Italy are its main trade partners. It is therefore no surprise that all of Austria's mainstream parties, including the FPO, want to preserve Austria's tariff-free access to EU markets. And while the Eurobarometer showed that many Austrians are skeptical about the European Union, it also revealed that 68 percent of them want to remain in the eurozone, limiting the appeal of narratives that vow to take the country out of the currency area.
This balance could prove difficult to maintain, though, particularly as the European Union prepares to start a long debate about future reforms. The debate will include plans to increase military cooperation in the bloc, something that Vienna will probably opt out of. The negotiations will also include plans to introduce additional risk-sharing measures for eurozone banks and to increase public spending in the currency area. A more nationalist government in Vienna is likely to resist these measures. In some issues, Austria may actually find an ally in Germany, since the next administration in Berlin could also be reluctant to share economic and fiscal risk in the eurozone unless enough measures to control Southern Europe's fiscal policies are put in place. At the same time, there are several areas in which Austria will be willing to cooperate with the European Union. For example, Vienna will remain interested in protecting the bloc's external borders and introducing measures to limit migration. Vienna will also support the European Union's engagement with countries in the Western Balkans that aspire to join the bloc.
The Oct. 15 elections could mark the start of a new phase in Austrian politics. The vote could confirm the decline of the postwar political system that was based on agreements between the two mainstream moderate forces. As the strength of the populist right challenges the traditional supremacy of the centrist parties, the conservatives could continue their migration to the right while the progressives may decide to move further to the left to regain support from the working class. The inclusion of the FPO in the next Austrian government could also influence Austria's foreign policy, pushing Vienna to become less supportive of EU integration and more aligned with the nationalist policies of some Central and Eastern European countries. These countries are far from being a coherent group, but a more Euroskeptic Austria could help consolidate a bloc of countries that are willing to resist plans by Germany and France to deepen Continental integration.