Sunday’s excitement in Austria

Two days ago I was sat in a coffee house in the middle of Austria, reading the Sunday papers as they did their best to present an analysis of what the country could expect in its final week of electioneering. Last week, the Austrian broadsheet Der Standard summed up the politics of the past month with the phrase, "The most boring campaign in years, the most exciting finish in decades", and that is a fair assessment of what has been so far, all things considered, not the most thrilling of elections. Not surprisingly therefore, the main focus of the debate is not who will win (almost everyone is agreed that the Social Democrats (SPÖ) will come top) but who will form a coalition after next Sunday’s vote. Although the Social Democrats will come out the largest party, all the opinion polls suggest that they will do well to pick up 30% of the vote. The centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) are set to come in second, a few percentage points behind, and the chances are that if another "Grand Coalition" between the two main parties can’t be formed (this election was called because the last Social Democrat / People’s Party Government fell apart after two years) then Wilhelm Molterer, the leader of the ÖVP, is likely to look right not left, to the real winners of the campaigning of the last month.

Those victors are the two right wing parties, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Jörg Haider’s Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). The BZÖ look set to double their share of the vote to 8% and the FPÖ look like consolidating a significant third place with up to 20% of the national poll. More important though, combine their vote and you reach a figure that is now likely to surpass that of the People’s Party. In particular, Strache has run a highly effective campaign demanding that Austrian housing goes as a priority to ethnic Austrian families. The FPÖ have also run a full page advert this weekend in the newspapers, criticising the SPÖ for producing Turkish language election posters. "Is it fair", Strache asks, "that people should be allowed to vote in an Austrian election if they can’t read German?". A fifth of Austrians according to the polls have answered "No!". As Profil magazine, Austria’s equivalent of Time, put it last week in simple terms – "The right is back".

But the recent examination of public opinion makes even more disturbing reading for the two main parties. All the polls are showing that in the under 30 age bracket the FPÖ are now solidly in first place. In an interview in Österreich, a new Sunday tabloid, Franz Vranitzky, the former Socialist Chancellor (Prime Minister) of Austrian was asked whether he though this was a concern for the two old parties of Austrian politics. "Oh no", he replied, "I’m sure that if we have a proper public debate on immigration young people will realise the issue is much more complicated than the simplistic answers presented by Strache".

Such an answer is really just Vranitzky burying his head in the sand. The truth of the matter is that Austria has been having a proper public discussion on these issue since the start of August and that the Freedom Party is, rightly or wrongly, winning that debate. The likelihood is that Austrians may find themselves next week ntering a cross next to the box of the FPÖ and the BZÖ, and there will be no real alternative except a right-wing Government. This is despite a concerted campaign over the past few days by the ÖVP raising fears of an SPÖ / FPÖ coalition, on the basis that later this week the right-wing parties will vote in a special session of Parliament with the Social Democrats on an emergency measure to slash sales tax on a number of key groceries items. In practice though, the chances of Werner Faymann, the SPÖ candidate for Chancellor, having Strache as Vice-Chancellor as a high as Strache becoming Chancellor in his own right.

Regardless of whether the Freedom Party ally with the centre-left or centre-right, the result on Sunday will very likely leave the Green Party’s leader Alexander van der Bellen disappointed, but not as disappointed as Green Party activists who have seen almost no progress made since 2006 when they came neck and neck with the FPÖ in third place. This time round they will come a distant fourth, and there is even the chance they might be pushed into fifth. Anything less than the 11% they scored last time round and there is every chance that the party will implode. The strategy of campaigning on a left-wing agenda of high taxes for high earners has back-fired, and van der Bellen has come across as boring and uninspirational in the head to head election debates which are on every few evenings on Austrian TV. Why vote for him when the Communists’ Mirko Messner in his trademark jeans and woolly jumper is far more entertaining?

Although the Communists will fail to meet the 4% hurdle required to get candidates from their list elected under Austria’s form of PR, two other minor parties are looking to enter Parliament. The Liberals under Heide Schmidt are running around 4% in the polls, but in the last few days have been hit by a scandal involving their former leader, who whilst publicly opposing the Eurofighter project was privately working for the lobbying firm promoting Eurofighter, going as far as heading up the account. This is likely to affect their vote on Sunday.

On the other end of the political scale, Fritz Dinkhauser’s "Citizen’s Forum", while not being close to the 4% barrier is looking as though they may yet pick up regional seats in the Tirol, Dinkhauser’s powerbase. Unlike previous elections, the final result may not be known until late in Sunday evening as the final PR calculations are complicated by local and regional lists.

Tonight sees the last of the head to heads as Faymann and Molterer, the leaders of the SPÖ and the ÖVP square up in an hour long debate that many commentators believe will settle the issue of who will be Chancellor next Monday. After that there is the emergency session of Parliament, Friday’s final campaining before the traditional 24 hours ceasefire leading up to Sunday’s polls. The Austrian state broadcaster’s Election program will be available from 3pm British time that afternoon, and if your German is up to, promises to be the most exciting politics on your screen all week.

Unless of course you considered Gordon Brown’s speech this afternoon to be anything special.

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