Austria’s snap election: Is the Freedom Party (FPÖ) going to fade away?

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In the wake of Sunday’s Austrian general election, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) experienced a sharp decline in votes. Two factors help explain the FPÖ’s setback: a corruption scandal and the declining salience of the immigration issue. Does this mean that opposition to immigration among some sections of the Austrian electorate has gone away? The Migration Policy Centre’s Observatory of Public Attitudes to Migration’s team maps and analyses recent trends in attitudes to migration in Austria.

A blow to the far-right in Austria

After years of riding high in the polls, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) suffered a major setback in the 30 September Austrian legislative elections. The party finished third, with a decrease of 10 percentage points compared to the 2017 general election. What led to the sharp decline in votes for the FPÖ?

A key factor was internal conflicts and a major corruption scandal labelled as ‘Ibizagate’. However, a few other important aspects are likely to have also contributed to the loss of FPÖ’s votes.

As argued in a policy brief published just before the elections, overall attitudes to immigration in Austria are becoming more positive and the issue itself is becoming less salient for citizens.

Given that individuals who feel strongly about an issue factor those attitudes into their evaluation of which party to support in an election, the diminishing salience of immigration is likely diluting support for anti-immigration parties. As a matter of fact, 18 % of the 2017 FPÖ voters decided to stay away from the ballot box in this election.

Despite overall positive trends in Austrians’ attitudes about immigration, and the declining salience of the issue, certain voting  segments still felt negative enough about immigration to look for an alternative. It appears many other former supporters turned to Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party (ÖVP), which has successfully adopted FPÖ’s anti-immigration rhetoric. ÖVP made restrictive migration policy a substantive part of its 2019 electoral program (see forthcoming contribution from Hadj Abdou). In fact, around 20% of voters who supported the FPÖ in 2017 selected the ÖVP during the 2019 election. In other words, anti-immigration rhetoric is not as relevant for voters as it used to be in previous years, which translates into a loss of votes for parties such as the FPÖ due to non-mobilization or electoral volatility.

Stable attitudes, shifting priorities

Attitudes toward migration, as with attitudes about other political issues, are relatively stable. They are generally formed during childhood or youth, and tend to persist throughout life. Specific situations, such as the post-2015 ‘migration crisis’ and all of the intense media coverage that accompanied it, are less likely to change peoples’ views than they are to activate latent anti- or pro-migration attitudes.

The key point here is the relative importance that people attribute to an issue—that is, its salience. When migration is not salient, voters make their electoral choices according to other relevant issues (often related to economic concerns) and personal attitudes towards migration do not determine their vote. When migration becomes salient, individuals make their electoral choices according to the congruence of parties’ stances on immigration with their own negative or positive attitudes to immigration.

Immigration salience in Austria

As illustrated in Figure 1, before 2015 few Austrians considered immigration to be a salient concern when compared to economic issues such as prices and unemployment. The salience of immigration rose sharply after 2015 and became the defining political issue, overshadowing even the economy. In 2015 and 2016, more than half of Austrian respondents considered immigration to be the most important issue facing Austria. The peak in immigration salience coincided with the date of the last parliamentary elections in 2017. The two parties that campaigned on the issue of immigration with relatively restrictive positions, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ), gained the majority of the votes (57 %).

Figure 1. Salience of issues facing Austria in the years 2005-2019. Source: Eurobarometer

 

Figure 2 shows that these are the two parties whose voters have the most negative views about immigration.

Figure 2. Impact of immigrants according to the potential voters of several Austrian political parties. Source: European Values Survey 2018

 

The immigration issue in Austria and voting for FPÖ

More recently, immigration salience in Austria has declined. In the most recent Eurobarometer poll conducted in March 2019 and published in June (see Figure 1), more Austrian respondents considered economic issues such as inflation, health and social security to be more important problems for Austria than immigration. While immigration and security remain the core topics (Figure 3) for the people who did vote FPÖ in this September’s election, many 2017 FPÖ supporters might have changed issue priorities. Voter transition analysis of the 2019 election shows that 20% (258,000 votes) of Freedom Party voters from 2017 were lost to the People’s Party (ÖVP). It is thus likely that these voters either prioritized healthcare and the economy as more salient issues compared to immigration, or that they were more convinced the ÖVP could deliver a restrictive stance on immigration policies.

Figure 3. Topics in the Austrian election campaign according to voters of selected parties. Source: ORF/SORA/ISA

Top 3 topics for three of the parties running in the 2019 Austrian elections

 

 

Lessons to be drawn

The role played by the immigration issue in the FPÖ performance provides some general insights into the success or failure of anti-immigration parties in western European countries. The fortunes of these parties seem to depend not only on the positions that European electorates hold vis-à-vis immigration, but also on the importance that voters assign to the issue.

Far right parties like the FPÖ benefit when immigration salience is high amongst the electorate, and lose out when other topics are seen as a more important priority. When migration drops below other issues in terms of importance, as was the case in Austria’s recent elections, far right parties could face losses. This could be exacerbated when combined with scandals, as with what happened to the FPÖ.

A further lesson from the Austrian case concerns the stability of anti-immigration attitudes. Although overall opposition to immigration in Austria (as in many other European countries) is diminishing, it continues to flourish in certain segments of the Austrian electorate. Immigration might not always be salient, but that does not mean that opposition has vanished: anti-immigration sentiments probably only remain latent until the next time the issue heats up.

 

Dr. Lenka Dražanová is a Research Associate at the Migration Policy Centre’s Observatory of Public Attitudes to Migration (OPAM). Lenka’s research mainly analyses political behaviour, public opinion and individual attitudes formation using advanced quantitative methods. She is the author of Education and Tolerance (Peter Lang, 2017). She would like to thank Dr. Leila Hadj Abdou for invaluable insights regarding Austrian politics.

For more on issue salience by this author, read her argument published in Right Now!, the blog of the University of Oslo’s Centre for Research on Extremism.