The most exciting election in Austria this year is the Vienna election. The metropolis with its nearly two million inhabitants is a federal state in its own right and elects the city council as well as the mayor, i.e. de facto the state parliament and governor.
The election is significant for Austrian politics in several respects. On the one hand, it is the first major election in the midst of the Corona epidemic and on the other hand it is a political mood test. The pandemic is also increasingly becoming a bone of contention between the federal government and the Viennese provincial government – especially between the conservative Chancellor’s Party and the red city government, which accuse each other of omissions and mistakes.
Furthermore, Vienna is one of the few provinces in which the Social Democrats can hope for success and where they operate from a position of strength. The federal SPD depends to a great extent on its strength in Vienna, and even now the Social Democrats are generally expected to win the elections. The polls show that the incumbent mayor Michael Ludwig could get about 40% of the votes, but he is still untried in the election campaign and follows a popular predecessor in office.
For the first time in a long time, the elections are taking place in a context in which the SPÖ’s most important opponent, the right-wing populist Freedom Party, which in 2015 still achieved 30%, has suffered a total crash and, according to polls, can only count on about 10%. Shaken by scandals, divided, in a phase of weakness even at the federal level, and with the less attractive party leader Dominik Nepp at the top, the FPÖ is currently fighting in a relatively lost position. Nepp took over the party after the two dominant Viennese FPÖ personalities Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus had to resign due to the Ibiza scandal.
The situation of the Freedom Party is further complicated by the fact that after a short political time-out, Strache returned to politics with a new list and is now competing with his former party with the grouping “Team HC Strache”. Strache is still popular with the FPÖ base and, according to polls, is at about 5%, which would put him on the local council. Whether this list, which in turn is part of the “Alliance for Austria” (DAÖ), founded by renegade Viennese FPÖ municipal councils, will last in the long run is more than questionable. Despite ongoing investigations against Strache for embezzlement, the accusation of having charged private expenses to his former party and a controversy whether Strache’s real residence was actually in Vienna, the ex-FPÖ leader is a politically relevant factor. For the FPÖ-Vienna currently has no one who has any media or election campaign experience of Strache.
The Turquoise, as the Christian conservative People’s Party under the leadership of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz now calls itself, hopes to profit from the FPÖ’s weakness and to be able to wipe out its historic defeat last time. Five years ago, they achieved less than 10%, but according to surveys, they can now count on just over 20%. The governor of Sebastian Kurz in Vienna, Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, is one of the Chancellor’s closest confidants. Since the ÖVP is in a peak phase nationwide at over 40% and conservative government leaders have repeatedly brought forward points against Vienna, the turquoise’s performance is being watched very closely.
Thus, three right-wing parties are competing against each other in Vienna, thematically addressing the areas of immigration and public safety and order. Interestingly, it is primarily the ÖVP and FPÖ that focus on the issue of foreigners and integration, while Strache tends to play the populist card and call for direct democracy and control of the powerful.
On the left, the Social Democrats are struggling with a Green coalition partner in Vienna. This partner functions as the necessary majority procurer, but at the federal level he is in a coalition with the Turquoise. The Greens are currently caught between two stools in the controversies between the federal government and the city over Covid-19. Birgit Hebein, a Green Party leader from Carinthia, had to take over the party during a phase of internal tensions. She finds the election campaign visibly difficult and she has difficulty asserting herself against the overpowering Social Democrats in Vienna. Even at the federal level, the Greens are not really able to stand up to the dominant Chancellor’s Party. Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan city of Vienna is one of the core states of the Greens. Some of the colorful inner-city districts with their highly educated and politically progressive alternative electorate with good incomes are Green strongholds and are commonly referred to as Bobostan: in allusion to the population that is often referred to as “bourgeois” and “bohemian” (BoBos). The Greens are also able to focus on the environment, which is always the dominant issue and which they serve almost without competition.
Vienna is also a good place for the Liberals, who are represented by the NEOS party. The top candidate and party leader of the party also known as Pinken, Christoph Wiederkehr, succeeded the current federal chairwoman Beate Meinl-Reisinger as Vienna’s party leader and despite several years of political experience is still a blank slate for many Viennese. Although the NEOS can count on slight gains, Wiederkehr is dependent on strong support from the federal party, as can be seen on the posters.
With the Greens, the Pink Party shares above all the liberal positions on Europe and migration. Although the NEOS emerged from the People’s Party, the criticism of the socio-cultural orientation of the Short ÖVP is particularly strong. One last and relatively sad circumstance accompanies the Vienna elections: Nearly half a million of the nearly two million people living in Vienna are not eligible to vote due to the restrictive handling of citizenship in Austria. There is the curious circumstance that the Danube metropolis is the largest federal state in terms of inhabitants, but only the second largest in terms of eligible voters. If the result is as promised in the polls, everyone except the Freedom Party will probably claim victories – at least it will remain exciting.
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