This state election could make history and finally initiate a triumphal march of the right-wing populist FPÖ in Austria. "It is even conceivable that the Freedom Party will provide the Chancellor for the first time after the upcoming National Council elections (Bundestag elections)," says Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerle, a well-known political scientist in Austria, the WELT.
On Sunday, the conservative ÖVP fell to almost 40 percent in its stronghold of Lower Austria and lost almost a fifth of the votes - most of them to the FPÖ. It was the worst result in the history of ÖVP Lower Austria. The Social Democrats also lost, they received 20.6 percent - also a historic low. There was only one winner in this state election: the FPÖ. The party gained more than half of the votes compared to the previous election and came second with 24.2 percent.
The victory of the FPÖ in Lower Austria does not seem to be a slip. Rather, it confirms what has been emerging in all nationwide surveys for months: the FPÖ is the strongest party in the country with around 28 percent, followed by the Social Democrats (24 percent) and in third place the Chancellor's Party ÖVP (22 percent). A year ago, the Freedom Party was still at 17 percent.
This return to earlier election results from the times before the affair of the former party leader HC Strache (Ibiza video) in 2019 is surprising - also because the undisputed FPÖ leader, Austria's former interior minister Herbert Kickl, represents radical positions and bourgeois voters actually should be suspect: Kickl is still on the side of Russia's President Putin.
He accuses Nehammer of "warmongering" because of his support for the international Ukraine policy and calls Brussels a "hotspot of stupidity". During the Corona crisis, he recommended a drug against worm infestation and scabies mites as “effective” prophylaxis against infection. Kickl recently proclaimed the "Austrian Fortress" in a large-scale poster campaign and railed against a "gigantic population migration".
That matters. According to the respected SORA Democracy Monitor, more and more Austrians want a “strong leader”. Only one in three still believes that the political system works well. What's going on in Austria? Corona crisis, high inflation rates and immigration - there are also other EU countries. But nowhere - certainly not in Germany - have right-wing parties benefited from the multi-crisis as much as in Austria.
This is all the more astonishing because both the black-green government and the social-democratic opposition are actually doing a good job. The Social Democrats recognized the issue of inflation much earlier than other parties and presented proposed solutions. SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner was also very present during the corona pandemic.
The government under Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) and his deputy Werner Kogler (Greens), on the other hand, is much more willing to reform than, for example, the traffic light coalition in Germany: The eco-social tax reform goes further than in Germany and is a great success for the Greens.
The ÖVP was able to get corporate tax reduced to 23 percent (Germany: 30 percent), companies to receive so-called energy aid packages worth an incredible nine billion euros, cold progression to be abolished and social benefits to be largely adjusted to price developments - a finely balanced mixture from economic and social policy, which, however, costs a lot. In addition, Austria is growing faster than Germany, unemployment is at its lowest level in ten years despite crises, and the start-up scene is booming like never before.
"Nevertheless, there is a high level of dissatisfaction with the government, which is the result of social change, but also the ongoing allegations of corruption against members of Chancellor Kurz's former government, high prices and immigration," says expert Stainer-Hämmerle. One thing is certain: the ÖVP is stuck in the short hole. The former chancellor was seen by many in the country as a kind of savior who cleaned up Brussels, mastered the migration crisis, boosted the economy and kept the FPÖ small.
When Kurz got caught up in a whirlwind of previously unproven allegations of corruption in the context of the so-called chat affair and resigned in autumn 2021, the disappointment with him, but also with politics as a whole, was all the greater. The savior was gone, and Chancellor Nehammer has never been able to fill the gap in times of crisis - although his economic policy is much more successful than Kurz's. "Many FPÖ voters today are simply reminders voters," says Stainer-Hämmerle.
This also has to do with migration policy. The number of asylum applications in Austria shot up last year from almost 40,000 in 2021 to 109,000 - the highest value since 2016 and, together with the vulnerable refugees from Ukraine, an enormous burden for many communities. "The issue of immigration has always played into the hands of the Liberals, and that's the case now," says Stainer-Hämmerle.
The professor from Klagenfurt considers it a mistake that the ÖVP attaches so much importance to the issue of migration. “Anyone who talks about asylum tourism and evil gangs of people smugglers scares people. The ÖVP should communicate more positively and give the feeling that the problem can be solved. Now the failure with the high number of asylum seekers is largely attributed to the ÖVP.”
Conservatives, Greens and Social Democrats are now counting on the asylum crisis calming down again. It remains unclear whether this will succeed. In fact, there are currently some indications that the right-wing populists could become the strongest party in the upcoming federal elections.
“A Chancellor Kickl is unthinkable. But it is quite possible that Kickl would be willing, for reasons of power strategy, to let more moderate FPÖ forces like Haimbuchner or Hofer take precedence as chancellor,” says Stainer-Hämmerle. Manfred Haimbuchner is already a minister in Upper Austria, and Norbert Hofer was a respectable candidate in the federal presidential elections. The Social Democrats are already warning of the scenario: "An FPÖ government would be extremely dangerous for Austria and all of Europe," says MEP Andreas Schieder.