How people elect parliaments
Voters in Austria have their turn this Sunday to determine the role of the far-right in yet another European parliament.
Historically the nationalist, populist and conservative Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has been one of Europe’s most successful far-right parties.
From 1999 to 2005 FPÖ actually shared government in coalition with the establishment centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP), to the dismay of many other EU governments.
The chamber of the Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of the Austrian parliament (image: at.krg.org)
Elections in 2017 have seen far-right populist parties perform well in the Netherlands, France and Germany, but not been elected to – or included in – any national governments.
Austria’s two long-established major parties – the ÖVP and the centre-left Socialist Party (SPÖ) – recorded their worst results ever at the last parliamentary elections in 2013.
To prevent the far-right from having influence in the 2013-17 government the two major parties were obliged to join together in coalition, as has been happening in Germany recently.
Now the Freedom Party is back up in the polls, making it essentially a third major party.
In elections for the nation’s President in May 2016 the candidates of the two major parties were humiliatingly relegated to fourth and fifth places. In the final runoff – which had to be conducted twice – Green-supported presidential candidate Alexander van der Bellen won a tight contest over the Freedom Party’s candidate Norbert Hofer.
To elect the Nationalrat – the lower house of the parliament, where governments are formed – Austria uses a unique three-tiered voting system in which voters identify a single political party which they support. These party vote scores are tallied three times, at local, provincial and finally national levels.
At the first two tiers of counting, parties win seats in the 183-member house for each simple quota of votes (the number of seats available in the local or provincial electoral regions divided by party vote totals). Leftover seats as well as unsuccessful votes then cascade up to the second and third tiers of counting.
At the final national tier any party which wins 4% of the vote nationally will be allocated some of the remaining seats.
The result is essentially a fairly accurately party-proportional overall result, at least for all parties reaching the 4% national vote-share threshold.
The actual candidates who take parliamentary seats are nominally determined by the party listings, although voters have some chance to boost popular individuals up the party list order by identifying up to three favoured candidates.
A sample Austrian Nationalrat election ballot; voters must choose just one party (columns), but may mark support for up to three individuals (lower part of the ballot) within that party’s local list (image; Wikipedia)
Ten political parties have qualified to be listed on the ballots nationwide for this weekend’s elections. (Some minor and local parties will also be listed on the ballots for individual provinces.)
From mid-2015 to mid-2017 the Freedom Party was actually topping opinion polls in Austria. Their support peaked at around 35% in late 2016, but has now fallen to around 25%.
The SPÖ, which placed first in 2013 and had led the outgoing coalition government, has spent the past several years with support consistently around 25%, but never reaching 30%.
The centre-right ÖVP party, under new leader Sebastian Kurz, is now doing rather better. The party has opened its electoral list to include candidates from outside the party itself, and in recent months has seen its poll support surge from around 20% to lead the field at 33%.
The Green Party, which supported the current president into office, did well in 2013 and, with around 12% of the vote, held 24 seats in the outgoing Nationlarat.
In a system with a 4% threshold to win seats, a party averaging 12% support should be comfortable assured of winning numerous seats, especially at the higher tiers of counting. But the Greens have this year done the worst possible thing they could do, by splitting internally into three factions.
Green voters will need to choose between the official party list, a breakaway list led by party elder Peter Pilz, and an alliance of the recently expelled Young Greens and the Communists (KPÖ).
The first two groups are each averaging around 5% in the polls. They would both still win seats at those vote shares, but the horror scenario for the Greens is that all three lists fall just below 4%, resulting in no seats at all.
A lower vote share also increases the influence of the national list order in determining which individual candidates take the Green seats, relative to the order of candidates in the local and provincial lists.
The liberal NEÖS party also looks likely to win around 5% of the vote and thus secure seats, but not enough to be influential in the government coalition-forming process.
Whatever the fate of the minor parties, all the polls indicate that the next Nationlrat will basically require two out of three of the larger parties to form a coalition to govern.
Since the Socialists and the Freedom Party would not co-operate, and since the ÖVP seems certain to have the largest seat share anyway, the next government of Austria will in reality be determined by which of the other two parties the ÖVP chooses to partner with, with Kurz becoming the next Chancellor.
If ÖVP chooses to partner with the Freedom Party, it would become the only ‘western’ European government to include a far-right populist party.
Such an outcome would also embarrass the constitutional position of President van der Bellen, who has made known his discomfort with the Freedom Party having any role in governing the nation.
Austrians vote on Sunday: Will they turn to the right again? (Washington Post, October 12)