On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Elections highlight role of PR in coalition-building

Overnight election results in Austria and the north German state of Lower Saxony have highlighted the impact of proportional representation systems in forcing political parties to form joint governments.

Voting in a three-tiered system of proportional representation, the Austrian election has produced a three-legged result, with some combination of two out of three major parties now needed to assemble a parliamentary majority.

Austrians have also apparently elected the world’s youngest head of government.

Meanwhile in Lower Saxony, which uses Germany’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system, an election called early because a two-party coalition lost one MP may produce a result which leaves no willing combination holding a parliamentary majority.



Austrians have delivered a triangular election result, with the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) estimated to have won 63 seats to the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ)’s 53 and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ)’s 51.

There will also be MPs from minor parties also in the new Nationalrat. The liberal NEOS party looks likely to win 10 seats, and a Green splinter list named Pilz may win 8 seats.

The country’s official Green party has had a disastrous election, polling 3.9% of the vote, down from 12% in 2013.

This puts the Greens below the 4% cutoff for eligibility to win ‘third tier’ seats.

While the party may still win a few seats in localities where there concentrated Green-voter support, the splits within the party have resulted in a massive collapse on their 24 seats in the outgoing parliament.

But in any case the minor party numbers in the chamber are too small to affect the triangular situation with the three major parties.

The ÖVP and SPÖ have governed Austria together in coalition for a decade – and indeed have been joint governing partners for much of Austria’s post-war history.

But after a significant falling out earlier this year, at present most politicians in both parties are rejecting the option of continuing their relationship.

Since the SPÖ will be loath to work with the FPÖ, that leaves the ÖVP in the box seat to chose a governing partner.

Including FPÖ figures in the cabinet may face a constitutional problem, however, as the Greens-backed national president Alexander van der Bellen, elected in 2016, could exercise his constitutional prerogative to veto individual cabinet nominations.


ÖVP leader and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has blended a shift to the political right with strong support for the EU (image: Politico)

The 31-year old ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz has essentially engineered the current situation, breaking the SPÖ-ÖVP marriage up some months ago and forcing the early election, the outcome of which has greatly increased his political leverage.

After becoming party leader earlier this year Kurz shifted his party’s positions further to the political right on many issues – primarily immigration policies. By doing so has reclaimed a significant voter base that was telling pollsters it had turned to the FPÖ.

Kurz also insisted on the party competing in this election with a list of candidates under his own name, and including non-party members of his own selection.

Assuming he now becomes Chancellor of Austria, Kurz will be the world’s youngest national head of government, beating out joint Captain Regent of San Marino Enrico Carattoni (32)* and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (34). Kurz has served as Foreign Minister since the age of 27.

(*From 1 April to 30 September 2017 one of the two Captains Regent of San Marino was Vanessa D’Ambrosio, aged 28.)


Lower Saxony

Overnight estimates indicate that the German Socialist party (SPD) has had a good late campaign to return to first place in the state’s voter support, with 37% of the vote.

This makes Lower Saxony the only instance in 2017 where the SPD has outpolled the centre-right CDU party in an election.

Five of Germany’s six main political parties will be in the new Landtag. The left-wing Die Linke party has failed to make the 5% vote threshold to win seats, but the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will win seats in the state assembly for the first time.

The situation for government formation may be deeply inconvenient, however. In the outgoing assembly four parties were present, and the SPD and the Greens had a 1-seat coalition majority over the opposition CDU and Free Democrat (FDP) parties.

The early election was triggered by the defection of one Green MP to the CDU.

Now, due to the arrival of an AfD caucus, the SPD-Green alliance may fall short of a majority, while the putative CDU-FDP alternative will not have one either.

AfD will essentially have the balance of power, but no other party will be willing to allow it into a cabinet.

The FDP could solve the situation by joining the current government, making a SPD-Green-FDP coalition (known as a ‘traffic light’ coalition after the party colours). But the  FDP has indicated that it would favour the CDU as a major governing partner, not the SPD.

If no three-party coalition with a majority can be formed, the state will be in the uncomfortable position of operating with the AfD exercising a decisive role in parliamentary votes.

More reports:  Angela Merkel’s conservatives in Lower Saxony can’t top Social Democrats in state election (Deutsche Welle)

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