Carinthia and Lower Austria 2013
State elections were held in the Austrian states of Carinthia (Kärnten) and Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) were held on March 3, 2013.
The Carinthian state legislature (Landtag) has 36 members elected to five-year terms in four constituencies through proportional representation with a 5% threshold. The Lower Austrian landtag has 56 members elected to five-year terms in 21 constituencies corresponding to the state’s district and cities, the threshold is 4%.
In Carinthia and Lower Austria (along with Burgenland, Styria and Upper Austria), the state government is formed on the basis of the Austrian proporz principle, where each party which won over 10% of the vote receives seat(s) in the state government in proportion to their share of the vote. Although all major parties govern in coalition and hold seats in the state government, there may be unofficial working agreements/unofficial coalitions between parties in the state government to form an absolute majority in the legislature and government, leaving a smaller government party as a de facto ‘opposition’. The state governor (Landeshauptmann) is elected by the state legislature, and often comes from the largest party in the legislature and government.
Carinthia is a largely alpine state in southern Austria, the state capital is Klagenfurt. Historically, the state’s main industries included agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and mining. Today, the state’s economy is more reliant on tourism, electronics (Philips and Seimens have large operations in the state) and engineering. Carinthia has the second largest Protestant population in Austria after Burgenland, representing 10% of the population. Some rural areas in the state resisted the Counter-Reformation which nearly wiped out Protestantism in modern-day Austria.
Of lesser demographic significance but of far more political significance is a small Slovene minority in Carinthia, concentrated in the south of the state between the Karavanke mountain range (the modern border between Austria and Slovenia) and the Drava river. In the nineteenth century, about a third of the Carinthian population was Slovene; in the 2001 census, the official figure was 3% (Slovene minority groups claim that the data is flawed and underestimates the minority). Events which took place in Carinthia immediately after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 have had a major effect on the state’s contemporary political tradition. In 1918, Yugoslavian troops invaded the predominantly Slovene region between the Karavanke and the Drava river, forcing the German-Austrian state government to flee Klagenfurt. After armed clashes between both sides, the Entente powers stepped in to arbitrate a ceasefire. The parties involved agreed to hold a plebiscite in the predominantly Slovene region of the state to resolve the issue. In a 1920 plebiscite in the majority-Slovene ‘Zone A’, 59% of voters chose to remain part of Austria – a significant number of Slovenes, particularly those in the Klagenfurt basin, voted to remain with Austria rather than join the new Yugoslav state.
Despite the resolution of the issue, the armed conflict between Carinthia and Yugoslavia in 1920 (Kärntner Abwehrkampf) has played a major role in forming the state’s contemporary political traditions, by breeding pan-German nationalism and anti-Slavic/anti-Yugoslavian sentiment. Since the days of the Austrian First Republic in the interwar period, Carinthia has been a hotbed of (pan-German) nationalism. During the interwar years, the pan-German national liberal Landbund, which had a strong base with Protestant farmers, often placed second with decent results.
However, during the interwar era and during most of the post-war era, Carinthian politics were dominated by the Social Democrats (SPÖ), strong in the state partly because of its industrial and blue-collar nature. The SPÖ won the most votes in every state election between 1945 and 1999, and even won over 50% of the vote between 1970 and 1984. The longtime SPÖ Governor, Leopold Wagner (1974-1988), was very popular with Carinthian voters because of his populist and nationalist (often anti-Slovene) positions, which often put him at odds with the federal leadership of the SPÖ. However, throughout the post-war era, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) – an erstwhile national liberal party (which welcomed a lot of former Nazis) which has since become Austria’s leading far-right party – was much stronger in Carinthia than in the rest of the country. It always won double digits (in the low 10s between the mid-1960s and 1984).
Since the 1980s, Carinthia has gained national and even international prominence as the stronghold of the Austrian far-right. Jörg Haider, associated with the FPÖ’s right-wing/pan-German camp, gained control of the Carinthian FPÖ in 1983 and went on to gain control of the federal FPÖ in 1986 (defeating Norbert Steger, who had been the party’s unsuccessful liberal leader since 1980). Under Haider’s leadership, the FPÖ shifted rightwards, away from its erstwhile classical liberalism and emphasizing nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant positions. This new rhetoric propelled the FPÖ to new heights, beginning in Carinthia. Under Haider, the party increased its support from 11.7% to 16% in the 1984 state election. In the 1989 election, the FPÖ won 29% in Carinthia and became the second largest party ahead of the conservative ÖVP. Haider was able to become governor of Carinthia through a deal with the ÖVP. He was, however, forced to resign in 1991 after his controversial appraisal of the Third Reich’s “employment policies”. In 1994, the Carinthian FPÖ increased its support to 33%. In 1999, the party placed first with 42% (against 33% for the SPÖ) and Jörg Haider became governor again.
At the same time, the FPÖ reached its peak federally (second placing with 27% in the 1999 federal election) and entered the federal government in a coalition with the centre-right ÖVP. Federally, cabinet participation proved unpopular with the FPÖ’s party and caused great strains on the party. In the 2002 federal election, its support dropped to 10% although it remained in government thereafter.
In 2004, Jörg Haider won another term as governor in his Carinthian stronghold, with the FPÖ winning 42.5% against 38% for the SPÖ (the ÖVP’s support collapsed to barely 11.6%). However, in 2005, after an internal row in the FPÖ, Haider left the party and founded his own party – the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), as an ostensibly more moderate version of the FPÖ. The FPÖ, now led by Heinz-Christian Strache, won the battle for control of the far-right against the BZÖ – the former won 11% against only 4% for the latter in the 2006 federal election. However, in the 2008 federal election, Haider took the helm of the BZÖ’s federal list and led the party to 11% nationally (the FPÖ won 17.5%) – and 39% in Carinthia.
Haider was killed in a car accident 13 days after the election, in October 2008. Running on a platform of upholding Haider’s legacy, his successor as governor, Gerhard Dörfler, won an unprecedented landslide victory for the BZÖ in the 2009 state election. The BZÖ won 44.9% against 28.7% for the SPÖ.
In December 2009, as the federal BZÖ under Josef Bucher took a ‘hard liberal’ turn and adopted very liberal on economic and fiscal issues (while remaining Eurosceptic), the state BZÖ under governor Dörfler and state leader Uwe Scheuch split from the federal BZÖ and formed an alliance with the federal FPÖ. The state BZÖ became the Freedom Party in Carinthia (FPK), associated to the FPÖ as a ‘sister party’ like the CDU/CSU relationship in Germany. The federal BZÖ under Bucher later refounded their own state branch, led by Bucher.
Two events marked Austrian (and Carinthian) politics in 2012: corruption scandals and the emergence of a new political party. At the federal level, all major parties – the governing SPÖ and ÖVP but also FPÖ – have been hit by corruption scandals which have eroded their support and credibility. The FPÖ’s support declined from about 27% in spring 2012 to 20-23% today, in part because of corruption scandals involving party members (Martin Graf, a president of the federal legislature, allegedly swindled an old woman). These corruption scandals, some of which date back to the ÖVP-FPÖ government, include cases of bribery, kickbacks, money laundering and trading insider information. In Carinthia, corruption scandals led to early elections this year. Senior FPK, ÖVP and SPÖ state politicians – including Governor Dörfler, former FPK leader Uwe Scheuch and a former ÖVP leader – were named in various corruption cases. Scheuch was forced to resign as FPK leader in August 2012 following revelations that he had partook in a kickback scheme to profit from the sale of state-owned bank Hypo Alpe Adria in 2007. Dörfler is cited in a case involving the use of public funds by the BZÖ state government to send out a large mailer to all Carinthian households during the 2009 election
These corruption scandals have facilitated the rise of a new party in Austrian politics. Frank Stronach, an Austrian-born businessman who moved to Canada when he was only 18 and later founded Magna International, a hugely successful Canadian auto parts company. Stronach ran for the Canadian Liberal Party in the 1988 federal election (but was defeated) and his daughter Belinda served as a Conservative (later Liberal) MP in the Canadian House of Commons. Frank Stronach returned to Austria in 2011-2012 (where he always maintained a foothold and local notoriety) and entered politics last year with the creation of a new party, ‘Team Stronach’. Stronach’s new party has a right-wing, pro-business platform – it supports a 25% flat tax and other pro-business policies (critics contend he wishes to dismantle Austria’s popular welfare state). Stronach wants Austria to leave the Euro and return to the schilling, but on other European issues it tends to be more favourable to European integration. Unlike the far-right, Stronach is not anti-immigration. However, with his right-wing, mildly Eurosceptic and anti-corruption image, Stronach has been able to eat into the far-right’s reservoir of protest voters, left a bit disillusioned following FPÖ/FPK corruption scandals. Stronach’s party recruited cadres from the BZÖ, SPÖ and ÖVP. Team Stronach’s top candidate in Carinthia was Gerhard Köfer, a former SPÖ MP.
These two state elections were Stronach’s first electoral test before the federal elections in the fall.
The Carinthian electoral campaign was marked by the corruption scandals which hurt the FPK but also the SPÖ and ÖVP – the only party with seats in the legislature who were ‘spared’ were the Greens. The campaign also saw a bitter battle between the FPK and Bucher’s BZÖ. The BZÖ ran a notably overwrought and overdramatic campaign, likening FPK governor Dörfler to past dictators (Ceausescu, Ben Ali, Mubarak) calling on voters to “liberate” Carinthia from the corrupt (and awfully dictatorial?!) FPK. The ad concludes in style with the famous image of US soliders raising the flag on Iwo Jima during World War II – except that they’re raising the Carinthian flag in the ad.
Turnout was 75.15%, down 6.6% since the 2009 election. The final results are as follows:
SPÖ 37.13% (+8.39%) winning 14 seats (+3) > 3 ministers
FPK 16.85% (-28.04%) winning 6 seats (-11) > 1 minister
ÖVP 14.40% (-2.43%) winning 5 seats (-1) > 1 minister
Greens 12.10% (+6.95%) winning 5 seats (+2) > 1 minister
Team Stronach 11.18% (+11.18%) winning 4 seats (+4) > 1 minister
BZÖ 6.40% (+6.4%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Pirates 0.99% (+0.99%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.95% (-3.44%) winning 0 seats (nc)
It was a monumental for the entire far-right edifice and the powerful FPÖ/BZÖ/FPK machine which Jörg Haider had masterfully built since 1983. The FPK, heir to the state BZÖ which had won a big landslide (with 45%) in the 2009 election running on Haider’s legacy, was trounced at the polls and won only 16.9% of the vote. The 2009 election had come as a major surprise since all polling had shown a close race between the BZÖ and the SPÖ; many felt that the polls would be wrong again this year and that the FPK could place first again – the last batch of polls had shown the SPÖ ahead (31-32%) but the FPK not very far behind (25-26%). The polls were indeed wrong again. Except that they were wrong in the other direction: badly overestimating the FPK at the SPÖ’s expense.
The SPÖ came out much stronger than originally predicted, with 37% of the vote – up over 8 points on its disastrous 2009 result – and, for the moment, regaining political domiance in its old Carinthian stronghold. Furthermore, with the addition of the Greens’ 5 seats, the left (SPÖ-Greens) have an absolute majority (19 seats). They will likely form an unofficial coalition with the ÖVP, which would give them a two-thirds majority and the ability to do away with the Proporz system.
It was an unmitigated and unprecedented disaster for the FPK and the whole Austrian far-right. The FPÖ’s national troubles were, it is true, were worsened in the state by the corruption scandal which has badly hurt the FPK. The result was a shellacking for the FPK, which lost 28 points – the largest loss for the far-right in any Austrian election – compared to the BZÖ’s 2009 landslide victory.
Corruption was one of the biggest issues in the campaign. Indeed, according to SORA’s exit poll, 73% of voters said that ‘fighting corruption’ was very important, making it the second most important issue behind jobs. The Greens – the only party in the old legislature which did not get tied up with the corruption scandals – and Stronach were those who gained the most from the focus on corruption. The BZÖ’s hilariously overdramatic campaign focusing on corruption likely helped them save face, taking 6% and 2 seats (they missed out on a third seat, which went to the Greens, by one vote on the final count).
The ÖVP did not do all that well, but it was a decent result for the party. The ÖVP had been hit particularly badly by the corruption scandal, to the point that the ÖVP’s leader in the state was forced to resign and was replaced by a new leadership which managed to clean up the ÖVP’s image a bit before the elections.
Stronach won 11.2%, more or less in line with what the polls had predicted. Should this be considered a good start for a new party, or should it be seen as a sign that Stronach will not be more than a footnote in Austrian politics? The question seems to have divided observers and commentators. It is clear that Stronach will not win a national breakthrough this year, unless something important happens; if Stronach was expecting to revolutionize the country’s politics and score a phenomenal breakthrough, he was clearly wrong. Austrian politics are relatively stable, political ascension take place over time and not overnight, and even if there’s much discontent in Austrian politics the country is not in a state of crisis which would favour the phenomenal emergence of a brand new party (unlike in Italy). Similarly, if observers and commentators were looking on Stronach to be a top contender in this year’s federal election with a strong chance at actually winning, they were mistaken – it was clear from the beginning that while Stronach had (and still has) much potential, he would not be able to rival the dominant ‘SPÖVP’ this year. Therefore, there would be reason for Stronach and his supporters to be pleased: 11% is a good result for a new party.
SORA’s exit poll revealed interesting information. Only 29% of the BZÖ’s 2009 voters backed the FPK this year, with 23% not voting at all (explaining the huge decrease in turnout) and 22% voting for the SPÖ – not all that surprising in Austrian politics given how the SPÖ and far-right fight for the same blue-collar electorate. 11% of the BZÖ’s 2009 voters turned to Stronach this year; about half of Stronach’s voters voted for the BZÖ in 2009. The Stronach party also gained some substantial support from non-voters (21% of its voters did not vote in 2009) and the SPÖ (18% of its voters supported the SPÖ in 2009).
The Greens, according to SORA, gained ground by taking votes from basically every corner. Only 29% of its voters this year had voted for them in 2009 – 19% had supported the BZÖ in 2009, 18% had backed the ÖVP and 16% voted for the SPÖ. These gains compensated for fairly substantial loses to other parties – while 62% of those who voted Green in 2009 did so again this year, SORA reports that 19% voted for the SPÖ instead, another 19% did not vote this year and 10% (?!) even voted for the FPK on Sunday.
According to the exit polling, the average Stronach voters seems to be a young (under 30) or middle-aged male, who probably voted for the far-right parties in the last state election. For a party led by an 80 year old man, Stronach has turned out surprisingly popular with younger males: he won 20% of the under 30 vote, and with males under 30 he was only one point behind the SPÖ for first place (at 23%). Stronach’s support declined with age: 11% with those aged 30 to 59, only 6% with those over 60. This demographic profile is not dissimilar to that of the far-right: the FPÖ has tended to do very well with younger males, and less so with women or seniors. The major difference between Stronach and the far-right seems to be that while the far-right does very well with blue-collar workers (32% for the FPK vs 36% for the SPÖ) and poorly with pensioners or white-collar employees, Stronach’s support is not markedly stronger with any social category (although he does not do well with pensioners) – he polled 13% with blue and white-collar voters alike. It can be inferred that Stronach gained a lot of votes from young voters (primarily males) who had flirted with or voted for the far-right in the past. Unsurprisingly, younger voters are always more likely to form the ‘protest vote’ element of any far-right party than the ‘ideological hardcore’ element.
‘Control of maladministration’ was the most common reason given by Green and Stronach voters to explain their vote. 59% of Green voters and 69% of Stronach voters said that controlling maladministration (a reference to corruption, obviously) was a factor in their vote; in both cases, this reason placed far ahead of all other explanations and it also placed much higher than with other parties’ voters.
You can explore the results by municipality on a map here. The SPÖ did well in Klagenfurt, Villach and Wolfsberg – the state’s largest cities – although it did not do as well in Spittal. The FPK did very poorly in both Klagenfurt and Villach, falling third behind the Greens in both cities. In general, the SPÖ did best in the south and east of the state, particularly in towns with a large Slovene minority population or in old blue-collar towns. The FPK and the far-right performs best in small mountainous communities in the north and west.
Lower Austria is a large state located in northeastern Austria. It is the second most populous state in the country after Vienna, a city-state which is entirely surrounded by Lower Austria. The state is economically and politically diverse; Vienna’s influence is very perceptible in the areas surrounding the city, and the region located directly south of the capital, the Industrieviertel, is an urbanized and industrialized region. One of the largest cities in that region is Wiener Neustadt. The area around the state’s administrative capital, Sankt Pölten, is also rather industrial. Outside a few isolated industrial centres, the rest of the state has historically been a predominantly agricultural region – with a large wine growing industry.
At the federal level, Lower Austria tends to be a closely disputed between the SPÖ – which does very well in the Industrieviertel, Wiener Neustadt, Viennese commuterland to the northeast of the city and Sankt Pölten – and the conservative ÖVP – which polls extremely well in the more rural Catholic areas in the western half of the state. However, at the state level, Lower Austria has been thoroughly dominated by the ÖVP since 1945 – it has won the most votes in every state election and has always held the governor’s office. Its worst result in a state election was 44% (in 1993). Since 1992, the governor of Lower Austria has been the ÖVP’s Erwin Pröll. Pröll has governed with an ÖVP absolute majority since the 2003. In the 2008 election, the ÖVP won 54% against 25.5% for the SPÖ, marking the worst result for the SPÖ.
Erwin Pröll has remained exceptionally popular throughout his 20 years in office, and is rather influential at the national level. His nephew Josef Pröll was the leader of the national ÖVP and Vice-Chancellor between 2008 and 2011. By virtue of his absolute majorities, Erwin Pröll is also a very powerful governor who has managed to run Lower Austria as his own personal fiefdom, the detriment of his ‘allies’ in the state’s Proporz government. His opponents claim that he is a quasi-dictator and intolerant of criticism.
A fifth successive term in office for Erwin Pröll was never in jeopardy in this election. The SPÖ is weak and increasingly irrelevant. The FPÖ had a prominent but poor top candidate, 2010 presidential candidate Barbara Rosenkranz. Team Stronach’s top candidate was Frank Stronach himself.
Turnout was 70.75%, down 3.76%.
ÖVP 50.80% (-3.59%) winning 30 seats (-1) > 6 ministers
SPÖ 21.59% (-3.92%) winning 13 seats (-2) > 2 ministers
Team Stronach 9.83% (+9.83%) winning 5 seats (+5) > 1 minister
FPÖ 8.21% (-2.26%) winning 4 seats (-2)
Greens 8.04% (+1.13%) winning 4 seats (nc)
Others 1.53% (-1.20%) winning 0 seats (nc)
In contrast to Carinthia, Lower Austria’s election was unremarkable and boring. It was the customary landslide for Governor Erwin Pröll’s ÖVP and the increasingly customary shellacking for the SPÖ (which won its worst result ever again). The FPÖ, hurt by its poor standing nationally and its poor local candidate, lost fairly substantially. In the 2008 election, it had recovered a bit (10.5%) from the drubbing it suffered in the 2003 state election (4.5%) but still fell short of its record, 16.1% of the vote in the 1999 state election. The Greens, meanwhile, won their best result to date.
Team Stronach did not do as well in Lower Austria as it did in Carinthia (this was not a surprise), likely because it was not boosted by corruption scandals like those which had destroyed the credibility of the Carinthian far-right.
The exit polls were rather boring as well. In Lower Austria, most of Stronach’s vote came from those who had not voted in 2008 (39% of his 2013 electorate) but also from the FPÖ (21% of his electorate), ÖVP (18%) and SPÖ (14%). The FPÖ held only 43% of its 2009 voters, 21% voted ÖVP and 19% went to Stronach. The drop in turnout seems, mostly, due to 2008 SPÖ and Green voters not showing up.
Unlike in Carinthia, the Stronach vote did not show any correlation with youth; but it did show a very strong gender gap: 14% with men and only 5% with women. It performed best with young males but also males over 60.
You can explore the results by municipality here. The SPÖ only won a handful of towns, and the ÖVP basically won every major city in the state – even traditional left-wing strongholds such as Sankt Pölten or Wiener Neustadt. Stronach did particularly in Viennese commuterland, which is where he lives.
The next elections in Austria, before the federal elections on September 29, will be early state elections in Salzburg (in May).