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ANALYSIS: How did Austrian politics get so chaotic?

As Austria's third new government in two months takes office, The Local spoke to experts about what one of them described as 'the Italianization of Austrian politics' to find out how we got here and what to expect next.

Karl Nehammer
Austria's Chancellor Karl Nehammer (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP)

The drama of the Austrian situation is especially clear when compared with neighbour Germany, which also gets a new chancellor this week. Outgoing German leader Angela Merkel will have overlapped with no fewer than ten Austrian counterparts during her time in office — and still won’t be the longest-serving post-war leader of that country.

The reason for the particularly short term of Austria’s most recent chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, is fairly straightforward at least. He was only ever intended as a temporary replacement for his predecessor Sebastian Kurz, who retained his role of party leader until his unexpected departure from politics last week.

READ ALSO: Who is Alexander Schallenberg?

“The party was not able to make a clear cut and installed someone in the Chancellery who would have been willing to hand over his position to Kurz as soon as he requested that,” political analyst Thomas Hofer told The Local, referring to the situation that gave Schallenberg to be dubbed a ‘Shadow Chancellor’.

“Now, at least, [the governing People’s Party] know that Kurz won’t return any time soon and can prepare for the next election.”

Some of the volatility of recent years can be attributed directly to Kurz himself, who shot to power as the world’s youngest democratically elected leader at the time, ousting his predecessor Reinhold Mitterlehner and going on to become Austria’s first leader to lose his job through a no-confidence vote, before returning six months later.

To Anton Pelinka, a professor in politics and nationalism, Kurz is more a symptom than the cause of Austria’s political upheaval, the real roots of which lie in the collapse of a two-party system. The former chancellor was simply able to exploit fault lines that were already there.

Like many European political systems, the proportional representation system makes it unlikely for a single party to win a straight majority in Austria. But that didn’t always lead to the unsteady coalitions and frequent changes that have marked recent years.

“The reason for the instability has been the decline of the two traditionally dominant mainstream parties – the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democrats (SPÖ),” Anton Pelinka, a professor in politics and nationalism, told The Local.

READ ALSO: What’s going on with Austrian politics?

In post-war Austria, the political landscape has mostly been dominated by the centre-left SPÖ and conservative ÖVP, either governing alone, in a grand coalition, or since the 1980s occasionally in coalition with the far-right FPÖ (which, around that time, changed its strategy to position itself as a populist anti-establishment party).

“The brief era under Kurz gave the wrong impression that the People’s Party would again rise to its old strength. Kurz provided for an illusion of being able to overcome the instability,” Pelinka said.

This decline in support for the ÖVP and SPÖ since the late 20th century has given more influence to the FPÖ (today the third largest parties and one of Europe’s most successful populist parties on the right), as well as to the Greens, and the youngest party NEOS.

This has led to at times unlikely coalitions, not least the current pairing of the conservative ÖVP and Greens, with tensions particularly on the issues of migration and corruption. It was the Greens who eventually forced Kurz to step down, saying they would pull the plug on the coalition otherwise.

Thomas Hofer sees a trend towards increased polarization in politics, which has made the coalitions unsteady — not only the previous grand coalition, which collapsed in 2017 when Kurz pulled the plug on it, but also the current alliance between the ÖVP and Greens.

READ ALSO: The rise and fall of Sebastian Kurz

“[The current coalition parties] really do come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. So, there are tensions frequently and this also contributes to the impression of permanent turmoil,” said Hofer.

“If you think back to the migration crisis, or the presidential election in 2016, you could already detect a heavy split in politics and society. This results in a very loaded political rhetoric and increases tensions, also on the personal level,” he said.

“What we’ve also seen, is an increase in “dirty campaigning” in the last couple of campaigns. And what a lot of politicians, including Mr Kurz, do is to strictly believe in polls. They are trying to imitate the opinion of the majority – and that also results in volatility and a very short-term approach in politics.”

So as former Interior Minister Karl Nehammer takes office, what are the chances the coalition will survive to the planned 2024 election?

Hofer expects the coalition to fracture during 2022, but notes that early elections would not be in the ÖVP’s failure and that the Greens, who entered government for the first time only in 2020, may want to “enjoy their new powerful position within government a little longer”. He added it was unlikely the coalition would be broken during the midst of the pandemic crisis. 

As for the longer term, both experts questioned by The Local thought it unlikely that stability would return.

“I wouldn’t speak of “years”. Austrian politics is moving and changing far too fast to plan for such a time span. At least since 2015, the political system has to deal with permanent crisis situations. So it’s hard to predict how this will play out in the coming months,” said Hofer. 

“I think there is no serious chance that the two traditional mainstream parties will regain their old dominance. I think the most realistic scenario is the Italianization of Austrian politics – high volatility with new parties and weakened old parties, and rather unstable coalition governments of three and more coalition partners,” said Pelinka.

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For members


Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from € 1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.