Assessing the Potential of Austria’s New Government Coalition

After Austria’s government collapsed in May 2019, Austrian chancellor and leader of the conservative party ÖVP Sebastian Kurz was voted back into office in a snap election only 4 months later. Having previously formed a coalition with the country’s far-right wing party FPÖ, Kurz is now teaming up with the green party to form a new government. With awareness of the effects of climate change rising in Europe, the Austrian Greens were able to increase their votership almost fourfold in the 2019 snap election, allowing them to re-enter the Austrian parliament after their defeat during the 2017 legislative election. The new coalition between the ÖVP and the Greens is remarkable for several reasons:  it is the only coalition between a center-right conservative party and a center-left green party in Europe and consists of a majority of female cabinet members, with 33-year-old chancellor Kurz himself being the youngest member. Austria’s new cabinet, however, is met with mixed feelings in Europe, giving reason for both hope and doubt.

The ÖVP and the Greens may have a rocky road ahead, as their priorities regarding government policies diverge on several points. Kurz announced that he will continue pursuing rigorous migration and tax policies, supporting the establishment, whereas Werner Kogler, leader of the Greens, promotes climate protection, increased government transparency, and the fight against child poverty. Finding a middle ground between the two parties may become difficult, particularly so since Kurz himself has admitted that negotiations with the Greens leading up to the coalition were difficult.

Despite this outlook, the ÖVP had few options but to team up with the Greens, making the decision neither one of mere goodwill nor coincidence. The far-right party FPÖ triggered the government collapse in May 2019 due to a corruption scandal involving former FPÖ party leader Heinz-Christian Strache who had made deals with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. For this reason, re-forming a coalition with the FPÖ was not a viable option for Kurz. Vast policy differences between Kurz and Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the social democrats SPÖ, the second-strongest party in Austria, made the SPÖ a similarly unlikely coalition partner.

This has resulted in a new cabinet, which has been commended as well as criticized for its character. Some news media label it an experimental laboratory with the potential to pave a new way for European politics while others criticize it as an ÖVP one-party rule with a green veneer. Such critique is not entirely unsubstantiated, as most ministerial key positions were given to ÖVP members, including the minister of the interior, foreign affairs, defense, finance, digital and economic affairs, agriculture, regions and tourism posts. Furthermore, some German news media are skeptical about the “charismatic façade” of the Austrian government, since the German Greens reportedly would not tolerate Austria’s ÖVP-led anti-migration policies if they were in the same position as the Austrian Greens. This highlights the risk of the political power gap between the ÖVP and the Greens. The Greens have added environment-friendly climate policies to the Austrian agenda, yet Kurz may retain the upper hand in policy decision-making, creating risks of political friction.

In addition to climate-friendly policies, other central issues are expected to be Kurz’s payroll and income tax reforms to reduce tax burdens on citizens by 2022 and a new control and transparency reform that will abolish a regulation on official secrets in favor of increased freedom of information. What may cause friction between the two parties are migration and refugee policies and a pending regulation on the detention of asylum seekers who could pose a threat to public security. Austria is one of the few countries in the world which has not signed the United Nation’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration under the leadership of Kurz. The Greens oppose this position and advocate a regulated distribution of migrants across Europe, but they were unsuccessful in changing Kurz’s policy direction during the coalition talks. The differences, however, remain clear: the two coalition partners have agreed on an unprecedented “coalition-free” deal if another refugee crisis occurs in Europe. The agreement allows for the ÖVP and the Greens to seek partnership with other parties in the government if they do not come to an agreement on the management of refugees.

Finally, it remains to be seen how cooperative the ÖVP and the Greens will be and how the Greens will influence Austrian politics during this five-year term. Despite policy differences, Chancellor Kurz is relatively likely to avoid another government collapse during his term in office, indicating that a collaboration between these two parties could be a potentially fruitful experiment.

About the Author

Yasemin Zeisl

Yasemin Zeisl earned her MSc in International Relations and Affairs from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Yasemin is fluent in German and English and possesses advanced Japanese language skills.

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