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Austria: Politics at the centre of Europe

With a population of less than nine million people and nine federal states Austria is far from being the largest state in Europe. It is, however, a very interesting political state that exists on the border between Eastern and Western Europe both geographically and politically. Take, for example, its current government which is made up of a Green Party President, a centre-right Chancellor and a coalition partner that campaigns on a right-wing anti-immigration agenda. Austria is equally a place that is leading the way in terms of new methods of political organisation and campaigning. In Sebastian Kurz, the current Chancellor and leader of the OVP party, Austria has one of the most interesting European leaders that may be more instructive of the direction of Europe that his more well-known counterparts in Germany, France or Italy.

Challenge for political parties in Europe

Arguably, the biggest challenge for the EU at present is to merge the competing viewpoints of nation states and in this there seems to be a growing divide between those countries that are on the frontline of the migrant crisis, countries like Hungary, Greece, Italy and Austria, versus those countries that are somewhat protected from it. What was so interesting about the 2017 election in Austria was how the OVP broke from its traditional alliance with the other centre left party, the SPO, and instead decided to go into government with the hard-right Freedom Party. In doing this, they met head-on the challenge of a party that represented people who were uncomfortable with rising immigration levels. The current coalition hasn’t marginalised the hard-right viewpoint by trying to ignore it, rather it is incorporating its concerns directly into government and trying to find a way to continue governance that marries both viewpoints together.

Addressing populism

This is instructive to the EU as a whole, which, like the US, UK and Brasil, have seen how pursuing a liberal agenda can lead to a building up of support for a populist alternative. In countries like Poland, Hungary and Italy there is a need to achieve the type of government that can represent both sides of the immigration debate in the same way that Austria is doing. This isn’t to say that Kurz, the OVP, or Austria have all the answers or that the government they have created isn’t problematic in many ways, but it is interesting that a country that straddles the dividing line between Eastern and Western Europe should also have a government that mirrors that division.

Austrian political campaigning

Across Europe at the moment, there are big changes occuring in the way that political parties are, first of all being born, and second of all, the way in which they are campaigning and communicating with voters. Traditionally, parties grew from trade union movements, political upheavals and there was a degree of predictability and stability to it. In recent years, we have seen parties develop from all sorts of movements such as En Marche in France which arrived like an island created from an underwater volcano overnight. Equally, in Hungary, the Momentum Party started out life as a pressure group related to an Olympic bid. The success of their petitioning efforts led to a political organisation being formed. Social media, new ways of grassroots organising, and political entrepreneurship are changing the political landscape and also challenging traditional parties.

Austria, with the growth of the Freedom Party and in the recent arrival of the NEOS party have shown that the old order of centre-right governance is not to be taken for granted and that the electorate require parties to respond to their current concerns rather than be content to follow old alliances. Austrian political parties though are again instructive to the rest of Europe in the way in which they marry traditional and emerging campaigning techniques. NEOS particularly are embracing modern methods of organising their membership and activists across all federal states, as well as incorporating technology to professionalize their voter outreach work and protect them against data protection breaches.

The SPO are taking an American approach by setting up ‘campaign camps’ for volunteers in the run-up to the European elections in May. Here, their trainers will share ideas, skills and motivational techniques for campaigning this year. The OVP have a political academy that operates both as a teaching instrument for party members including seminars and gatherings, but also as a permanent focus group to take in new ideas and develop the ethos of the party.

Where European political parties can sometimes become caught in a cycle of only communicating with voters at election time, Austrian parties are showing some alternative methods of developing a longer term engagement with their membership at least with a view to listening better to the electorate.

Political entrepreneurship

Political entrepreneurship, an openness to new ways of organising politically, appears to be established in Austria. Sebastian Kurz’s leadership of his coalition government is being noticed all over Europe as a new solution to an old problem. Equally, NEOS’s core group of 40 original members developed more like a business start-up than a traditional political party. In a modern, technology-driven world, new solutions and ways of organising are needed to represent the changing landscape of the electorate. In this Austria seems to understand competing traditions based on its location at the centre of Europe and is beginning to develop ways to incorporate those traditions into coherent political campaign structures. How those parties respond to the challenge of campaigning in a post-GDPR world will be very interesting to see.

This year we will be keeping a close eye on how different countries campaign and interact with their voters in the face of GDPR. If you want to keep up with all this content, subscribe to our mailing list below so you never miss a new blog post again.

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