How people elect parliaments
Yesterday’s presidential election in Austria is hanging in the balance, with the leading broadcaster projecting a virtual 50/50 tie.
The result will either bring in Europe’s first far-right nationalist elected head of state, or its first Green-independent one.
The final 14% of the ballots – made up of absentee votes – were unavailable last night and will be counted in the next 24 hours.
The two final candidates – Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and Green-backed independent Alexander Van der Bellen – represent relative extremes of Austrian politics.
The election is likely to be remembered as a historic anomaly in the use of the two-round runoff voting method.
Hofer, 45, presenting a charismatic and youthful face for the anti-immigrant FPÖ, and Van der Bellen, 72, a former professor of economics and Green Party leader – were arguably at the extremes of the political spectrum among the six original candidates. But as they were the two candidates who polled highest in the first round of voting on in April, only they went on to the second and final vote held yesterday.
Austria’s presidency is normally regarded as strictly a constitutional role, similar to the British constitutional monarchy or the elected Irish presidency.
Austrian presidents typically enjoy high public regard and operate outside partisan politics. The retiring president Heinz Fischer, whilst originally a governing party politician, was re-elected in 2010 to a traditional second term with 79% of the vote, unopposed by the major political parties.
The 2016 presidential election has been very different. Hofer has made statements that he would exercise constitutional prerogatives to attempt to bring his Freedom Party into a governing role. In response Van der Bellen has given similar indications that he would actively seek to prevent FPÖ from gaining any such role.
Both positions represent a fundamental shift in the traditional role of the national president.
The Austrian public is deeply divided by the impact of the recent migration crisis in Europe, and the refugee issue has dominated the presidential campaign and recent national politics.
The first round of voting was an unusual case of five candidates winning more than 10% of the vote, which virtually never occurs while traditional major parties sustain their normal vote levels.
Austria’s two traditional major parties, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP), have governed in ‘grand coalition’ for several years. But they are both now highly unpopular, and their respective presidential candidates polled just 11% each.
Conservative former constitutional judge and independent candidate Irmgard Griss ran third in April with just under 19% of the vote. Van der Bellen scored 21%, but Hofer easily led the field on 35%.
The plurality winners across Austria; former Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen led the polls in Vienna and in other urban centres, but the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer led everywhere across rural Austria (image: Wikipedia)
The 2016 election will likely become a textbook case of the two-round runoff voting system producing controversial results.
In 2002 the French presidential election saw many candidates fragment the national vote. In a crowded field, multiple left and centre-left candidates between them had a slight majority, with the leading Socialist candidate winning just 16%, but only two main candidates divided the slightly smaller vote of the political right, winning 19% and 17%. As a result the final round was between the centre-right sitting President Jacques Chirac and the far-right National Front’s Jean-Marie le Pen. In the second round of voting supporters of the left and centre were forced to elect Chirac as the lesser of two evils.
Even more dramatic was the 2012 Egyptian election coming after the fall of the Mubarak regime. In confused circumstances with new parties and untried candidates, five main candidates divided the result. The two highest-placed candidates were perhaps the most extreme: the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammed Morsi (who won 24%), and the candidate regarded as the representative of the military and the old regime, Ahmed Shafik (23%). Three more moderate candidates winning 20%, 17% and 11% filled out the ‘centre’ (although Egyptian politics had not at the time settled into a traditional spectrum of parties).
The final round between Morsi and Shafik was won by Morsi. Over the following two years civil and political disorder and a military coup were the result. But both leading 2012 presidential candidates were actively opposed by a majority of the nation. Had Shafik won instead, the continuation of the campaign against the old regime might have seen a different form or public disorder.
In such circumstances, the two-round runoff system acts to prevent moderate candidates prevailing over the extremes. At least one – and possibly any – of the more moderate candidates in the 2012 Egyptian election might have prevailed over either or both of the two front-runners had they been tested against them.
The two-round runoff system, with its rule eliminating all candidates except the top two vote-getters at the first round, contrasts with preferential voting as widely used in Australia (and for presidential elections in Eire and Sri Lanka), which eliminates candidates one-by-one in sequence, and also with the Condorcet method, which compares every candidate against every other to identify (if possible) a universally favoured winner.
The Austrian presidential election in 2016 resembles the Egyptian case (if in much less troubled conditions) in that the two candidates at the political ‘extreme’ went into the final round. By contrast the French 2002 situation – a repeat of which is widely anticipated in 2017 – involves one ‘side’ of politics claiming both spots in the final round of voting.
Both scenarios dramatically constrain the effective choice of the voters, leading to unwanted choices being made in the final round. Such circumstances will generally leave a winner with limited public acceptance.
The Austrian case has been seen as a potential turning point for European politics, as a win by the Freedom Party’s Hofer would make him the first far-right politician to hold top elected office in any original ‘western’ EU nation.
Even the initial surge of support for Hofer in April has proved to be enough to upend Austrian politics, with the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition’s prime minister – Chancellor Werner Feymann – announcing his resignation immediately after the first round results.
Parliamentary elections are not due in Austria until 2018, and under a Hofer-led nation key question would be whether the centre-right ÖVP will be able to abandon the grand coalition and form government with the more right-wing FPÖ. But it remains unclear which of the two parties would be dominant in such an arrangement.
At present the two right-wing parties lack the numbers in the national parliament to form a governing alliance.
The developments in Austria are alarming to many western EU allies, after nationalist governments have come to office in Hungary and Poland in recent years.
Three weeks ago, after the first round of voting, Hofer was polling at around 53% to Van der Bellen’s 47%, but the final stage of the campaign seems to have seen a slight shift in favour of the latter.
BBC reports that the official tally before the absentee vote count has Hofer leading at 51.9%, but the absentee votes are widely estimated to favour his opponent Van der Bellen. The overnight estimate is that the candidates are on almost identical votes.
A final result is expected within 24 hours.
Lead image: The Leopold Wing of the Hofburg Palace, Vienna – office of the President of Austria (image: Thomas Wolf, via wikimedia)