Austria and the European elections: Why so many young voters are so keen on the FPÖ

Posted on 21. May 2014

by Thomas Baumgartner

23-thomas-baumgartnerParty, politics and protest: the FPÖ represents such a perfect combination of these elements that for young Austrians the populist right-wingers are the first choice. The fact that the country is currently celebrating Conchita Wurst does not amount to evidence of any increase in tolerance levels.

The new European Parliament will be elected on Sunday and for the FPÖ of Austria – the FPÖ – things should really not go well at all. The over-inflated regional bank Hypo Alpe Adria was established in the first decade of the century by Jörg Haider, the former FPÖ leader and governor of the province of Carinthia, as an exercise in self-promotion. In the wake of the financial crisis the bank got into serious difficulties and is now having to be rescued by the state and provided with a fresh infusion of cash.

This carry-on will cost up to 17 billion euros. The debacle is presently resulting in cut-backs in all ministries, with education being particularly hard hit: in 2014 savings cuts of 57 million followed by a further 60 million in 2015. Baling out a bank at the expense of young people, so to speak, as these sums will of course not be clawed back through logical reforms in the school administration system, but as measures designed to produce a rapid cash return: bigger class sizes, reduced sponsorship opportunities and the delayed development of all-day schools.

However, this is having no adverse effect on the popularity of the FPÖ, especially among young voters (in Austria 16 year-olds are already entitled to vote): in the last elections to the Austrian National Assembly (Nationalrat) in September 2013, it came first among the under 29s, with 23% of the vote, putting it ahead of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) with 22% , the Greens with 22% and the Social Democrats (SPÖ) with 22%. So how come?

The FPÖ as a party of protest

Jörg Haider has died in the meantime and the new leadership team in place around Heinz-Christian Strache is doing everything it can to distance itself from past machinations. At the same time, Strache is reaping the benefit from the current government coalition of the Social Democrats and People’s Party having to deal with the consequences of the Hypo mess.

This sees the painful measures being applied by the government causing damage primarily to the parties of government themselves, as opposed to the FPÖ. Conversely, they are managing brilliantly – as they have done in the past – to position themselves as fighters against “them at the top”, drawing on the pool of protest voters. Their slogan for the current EU campaign reflects this well: “Austria is settling the score: with the Black-Red Coalition and the EU”.

With this strategy the FPÖ is also drawing in dissatisfied young people who see themselves as having been abandoned by the political system and robbed of their future. In this situation it is men – and above all young men – who are helping the party to such giddy heights.

The statistics generated by the last National Assembly elections make it quite clear who it was that helped the FPÖ achieve its 20.5% of the vote, seeing them occupy third place behind the Social Democrats and the People’s Party. Among male voters, the FPÖ was clearly in the lead with 29%, followed by the Social Democrats (23%), the People’s Party (20%) and the Greens (10%).

For men under the age of 29, the result is even more clear-cut: here we find the FPÖ out in front with 32%, with the People’s Party lagging some distance behind with 19%, along with the Social Democrats and Greens, both on 18%. For women, the picture is the exact opposite: with 16%, the FPÖ trails behind the Social Democrats and the People’s Party (both 29%). Among women under 29 only one in ten voted for the FPÖ – for this group the Greens (27%) along with the People’s Party (26%) and the Social Democrats (25%) were much more popular.

So how does it come about that the FPÖ fares so disproportionately well among men, and specifically young men? One reason for this is certainly that the backward-looking slogans of the FPÖ are falling on particularly fertile ground among men plagued with worries about the future.

The FPÖ is awakening a fear of practically everything – especially the EU and foreigners – and continues to channel these fears in a frighteningly perfect manner. Added to this is the fact that they are most convincingly addressing their target group of young males. FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache is recognised as a party animal, one who directly addresses his core clientele in the course of extended forays through the discotheques of Vienna.

Nor is he alone in this: along with his entourage, for example the 37-year-old chairman of the Vienna FPÖ’s group in the National Assembly, Johann Gudenus, he has a team from which this mixture of partying and politics is perceived as being credible.

In the 2010 Vienna state election, Sebastian Kurz provided impressive evidence of how such aggressive currying of favour among young voters can go completely awry: the 23-year-old (as he was at the time) People’s Party candidate toured around the capital in an SUV converted into a “Coolmobile”, on the stump for young people’s votes.

The strategy did not prove successful and the People’s Party slumped from 19 to 14% of the vote, although Kurz did himself get into the state assembly to pursue his career. Today, after an intermediate role as Secretary of State for Integration, the 27-year-old is Austrian Foreign Minister.

The difference could not be any more glaring: on the one hand party-loving opposition politicians who have for years been systematically setting out to tour the discos with the younger electoral strata and ranting on about “them at the top”, and on the other a young 27-year-old foreign minister who has made it into the political establishment. The lines really could not be more clearly drawn; the figures show what is being better received.

A stuttering EU election

In principle, the success of the FPÖ is based not on content, but on protest. For the next elections to the National Assembly, this concept sees the FPÖ set fair to emerge as the strongest party. In the European elections on 25 May they are not expected to do so wonderfully well, although the Party does have the wind in its sails at national level.

This has something to do with, on the one hand, Andreas Mölzer, a former leading FPÖ candidate and EU member of parliament, who with his unspeakable utterances (“the EU is a negro conglomerate”) and racist attacks on the Austrian internationalist and Bayern Munich footballer David Alaba (“a pitch-black Viennese”) created a scandal and has been removed from the FPÖ list in the meantime.

On the other hand, for the FPÖ the EU election is generally of little interest, as they have no desire to devote too many resources to the unloved EU. The perennial protests from the FPÖ are once again correspondingly dull, devoid of content and tiresome: “Austria first – and then the EU”, “Austria is rethinking – too much EU is stupid” or “Keep Turkey out”.

Since 11 May 2014, there has also been a further factor to be taken into account: Conchita Wurst. The Austrian Eurovision Song Contest winner currently has the country in a tizzy and there is no way of predicting the effect this will unfold in the coming weeks and months in what is still a socially conservative Austria.

However, with her three minutes in Copenhagen, she still contributed more in answer to the question of what Europe stands for than have all of the Austrian parties in the campaign leading up to the EU elections. This is also being felt by the FPÖ. In the run-up to the song contest, Heinz-Christian Strache was one of the most biting and offensive critics of Conchita Wurst, but in the meantime he has been forced to eat his words and congratulate her on her success. That must have been painful for him.

So on the one hand we have the “Wurst”, or the Sausage, as we Austrians refer to the victorious singer, juxtaposed against a FPÖ ever growing in strength (for the time being) – can these be reconciled at all? What at first glance appears as a paradox is not so mysterious when subjected to closer scrutiny: Conchita Wurst was sent to Copenhagen by the state-run ORF television service without any preliminary decision-making process, while the FPÖ is achieving its success at the Austrian ballot box.

By a “decision of the people”, i.e. subsequent to a vote by the Austrian viewing audience, 2014 would probably not have seen Conchita Wurst waved off to Copenhagen – after all the same attempt met with failure in 2012. Accordingly, it would be most inadvisable to draw any conclusions about Austrian tolerance from Conchita’s participation and victory. However, things can change.

In any case, the FPÖ now has one bogeyman fewer to agitate against. The momentum, as it were, in the election campaign is acting rather against the right-wing party of fear and protest. But this can change again rapidly. Even Conchita Wurst cannot replace what decades of major-party government have neglected to do, namely undermining the party of fear by presenting clear-cut statements and by adopting political positions. The FPÖ is only in a position to play its populist music so tunefully because the parties in government are not capable of setting the rhythm and therefore calling the tune.

In terms of European policy, what this would mean above all would be finally putting an end to the game of good member state and bad EU, and also genuinely explaining the complex decisions made in Europe. Less internal politics and instead more discussion of European matters such as youth unemployment, energy and security policy or the trade agreement with the USA. However, this calls for courage, honesty and a clear commitment if any real change is to be achieved in the way Austrian politics deal with Europe. “Rise like a phoenix” might not be a bad motto to adopt for this.

This article is part a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.