Jakob-Moritz Eberl and Eva Zegovits – Austria: the 2024 European Parliament elections – a prelude to this year’s legislative elections?

With all three main parties recently undergoing leadership changes, the vote is set to be a litmus test for the Austrian legislative election to be held later this year.

Jakob-Moritz Eberl is a Senior Scientist in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna and member of the Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES), and Eva Zegovits is a Managing Director and Senior Researcher at the IFES – Institut für Empirische Sozialforschung

Cross-posted from LSE EUROPP

People’s Party top candidate Reinhold Lopatka Photo: oscepa/Creative Commons

The last European Parliament election in Austria was far from typical due to the tumultuous “Ibiza affair”. This high-profile corruption scandal forced then Vice-Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache (Freedom Party – FPÖ) to resign just days before the vote.

Compared to 2014, voter turnout in 2019 saw a notable increase during this period, with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) still benefiting from its rebranding under then Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, while the Freedom Party – despite everything – experienced only a slight decline compared to the 2014 election. Note, however, that polls at the time did suggest they might have performed much better without the scandal. Looking ahead to the upcoming European election in Austria, we anticipate more substantial changes compared to 2019, particularly due to major leadership transitions across all three major parties since then.

Table: Results and polling in European Parliament elections in Austria

Table showing results of Austrian European elections.

Note: We indicate the lowest and highest share in polls published since the beginning of March, without any restriction in terms of quality indicators as method or sample size; we excluded one outlier for NEOS (20%) due to concerns regarding plausibility. Source: APA Wahltrend

Significant developments have occurred since the last European Parliament elections: Austria underwent snap elections, followed by the formation of a new federal government between the ÖVP and the Greens. Then, amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of political scandals emerged from the parliamentary investigation of the Ibiza affair, ultimately leading to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s resignation. As a result, Austria experienced three different chancellors and thereby three different party leaders of the ÖVP within a span of ten weeks in 2021: Sebastian Kurz, Alexander Schallenberg and Karl Nehammer.

With only a few weeks remaining before the 2024 European election, public satisfaction with the current Austrian federal government has reached an all-time low, with dissatisfaction with the political system at its highest (at least) since 2018. While some link this to the aftermath of the pandemic response, high inflation likely plays a key role here too. Austria has had much higher inflation than other EU countries. This prevailing climate of dissatisfaction positions this year’s European Parliament election as a “punishment election” or “protest vote election”, where voters primarily use their ballots to express discontent with the incumbent federal government.

New parties and new faces – but also some stability

Against the backdrop of shifting political dynamics, Austria’s 2024 European Parliament election is set to feature a diverse field of contenders – marked by a number of fresh faces alongside a few established figures.

The ÖVP has consistently ranked first in European elections since 2009. Historically, they are known for their strong pro-EU stance and their former lead candidate, Othmar Karas, has served as Vice President of the European Parliament from 2012 to 2014 and again since 2019. However, this year, the ÖVP has a new lead candidate, Reinhold Lopatka, a well-known politician who has been active at the regional and national level in the past.

The transition in leadership from Karas to Lopatka was marked by turbulence, with Karas expressing discontent within his party. This led to speculation at one point that Karas might even consider forming his own party for the election. Although election campaigns haven’t officially begun, the ÖVP’s campaign is anticipated to emphasise migration and traditional values (i.e. conservatism).

Interestingly, initial excerpts from the election manifesto suggest the party is taking a stance against policies and instruments related to climate action, which is somewhat unexpected. This would, however, be consistent with the party’s rightward shift after Sebastian Kurz’s rise to power in 2017. However, according to current polls, the ÖVP is projected to experience significant losses and is unlikely to retain its position as the strongest party.

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), which secured 23.9 per cent of the vote in 2019, is one of only two parties running with the same candidates as in the previous election: Andreas Schieder as their primary candidate, and Evelyne Regner as his running mate.

However, a recent and rather turbulent change in national leadership to Andreas Babler, the mayor of a small city in Upper Austria, makes the European election the first nationwide test for the new party leader. While Babler has faced criticism for previous strongly Eurosceptic statements, the SPÖ’s campaign under Schieder’s lead is anticipated to position itself as pro-European. The campaign will centre around reshaping the EU from within to become more equitable, emphasising social justice, welfare and redistribution.

The FPÖ, which has been led by Herbert Kickl since 2021, is expected to campaign similarly to previous national and European Parliament elections, with a clear Eurosceptic stance. Their current slogan is “Stop EU craziness”. Although lead candidate Harald Vilimsky has clarified that he does not support an “Öxit”  (Austria leaving the EU), he has expressed a desire to reduce the EU’s influence and favours repatriating powers to the member states, effectively diminishing the EU’s role and potentially rendering it superfluous. The FPÖ is also expected to campaign on other topics such as ending sanctions against Russia and expressing dissatisfaction with management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Polls currently show them in the lead.

Unsurprisingly, the Greens are expected to prioritise climate change in their campaign. However, during the months surrounding the 2019 European Parliament elections, climate change was much more prominent on the public agenda, fuelled by international attention on the climate movement led by Greta Thunberg.

To continue to capitalise on the success of this movement, the Greens selected Lena Schilling, a highly recognised activist from the Fridays for Future Movement in Austria, as their lead candidate. Schilling is not only the youngest candidate but also the only woman among the main contenders. However, as part of the national government, the Greens may face challenges due to dissatisfaction among their voters with the party’s performance as the junior coalition partner over the last few years.

The liberal NEOS has the most outspoken pro-EU stance, with former journalist Helmut Branstätter advocating for a “United States of Europe” in their campaign slogan. NEOS have boldly been addressing a taboo topic in Austria by questioning the relevance of neutrality in 2024 for a country that is a member of the European Union. This distinctive stance sets NEOS apart as a party willing to challenge conventional viewpoints and engage in more active discussions about Austria’s role within the EU. This clearly pro-European stance is expected to attract some conservative voters who are dissatisfied with the ÖVP’s continued shift to the right and its departure from its former candidate, Karas.

Somewhat of a wild card is the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ). The KPÖ has seen recent success in some regional elections and could potentially benefit from the supranational “Spitzenkandidat” of the party of the European Left (known as “The Left” in the European Parliament), who is a former leader of the KPÖ. For now, however, the party is mostly polling below the 4% threshold.

Finally, with “Democratic – Neutral – Authentic” (DNA), Austria counts a new anti-vaccine party among the contenders. DNA is, furthermore, anti-EU and pro-Russian. In Austria, DNA is now the second strongly anti-vaccine party, with the first one, “People, Freedom, Fundamental, Rights” (MFG) having already gained seats in the regional election in Upper Austria. While having gathered all the necessary signatures to participate in the European Parliament elections, its strong policy overlap with the FPÖ makes it unlikely DNA will attract a lot of attention or votes.

A litmus test?

The European Parliament election will be Austria’s first nationwide election since 2019, apart from the less contested 2022 presidential elections where President Alexander van der Bellen was re-elected for a second term. Since 2019, a lot has happened and public dissatisfaction is high. With legislative elections scheduled for autumn 2024, political parties as well as voters are expected to leverage the European Parliament election as a second-order national election.

Consequently, voters are – once more – likely to use their votes to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with domestic politics rather than focusing specifically on the EU. Given recent leadership changes in all three major parties – ÖVP, SPÖ and FPÖ – and the FPÖ’s strong lead in the polls, the outcome of the election may additionally serve as a litmus test that will set expectations for the upcoming legislative elections, influence campaign strategies and potentially challenge the validity of current polling results.

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