Using an anti-system campaign strategy has defined a new approach to elections across Europe, with the Austrian Freedom Party joining the Austrian People’s Party in a coalition government after the National Council vote in October.
Similar to the results of the general election 17 years ago, the People’s Party and the Freedom Party emerged as the big winners with 32% and 26% of the votes respectively. What is striking is that the two parties have used similar strategies throughout their campaigning.
One of the most prominent strategies was the staging of the election as an “anti-system” vote. This key term was however, not only used by the Freedom Party and the People’s Party. During the weeks before the elections, it seemed as if all parties eagerly tried to distance themselves from the established political “system,” which has led Austria to political deadlock.
This anti-system campaign style is not a purely Austrian phenomenon. Emmanuel Macron also portrayed himself as an outsider, which in fact he is not. Before Macron started his political career, he was an investment banker with Rothschild and became a millionaire due to his involvement in a high profile deal between Nestlé and Pfizer.
Though young and from the private sector, he became Francois Hollande’s economic adviser and was appointed Minister of Economics within two years. His claim that he was against corporatists and conservative powers seems audacious considering his connections to business circles.
In Austria, Sebastian Kurz, leader of the “new” People’s Party and big winner of the general election, called for new elections to be held and aimed to re-invent the oh-so despised system. Other party leaders quickly followed his example and marketed themselves as “movements” instead of parties.
Since the old-established party system caused the problems that led to the new elections, parties were hoping to attract more voters with this new style of campaigning. The outcome of the election shows that this strategy has proven to be successful, however the big winners of the general election have been part of this very system, which they themselves highly criticized.
Kurz is not a new figure in the Austrian People’s Party. He started his political career with the “Young Austrian People’s Party” in Vienna, of which he was appointed chairman in 2008 when he supported the party in the campaigning for the state elections in Vienna.
Kurz has been head of the “Young Austrian People’s Party” at federal level since 2009. In 2011, he became State Secretary, which was surprising to many, given that has was only 25-years-old at the time of his nomination. In 2014, Kurz became Austria’s Foreign Minister, and with that, one of the most important officials of the People’s Party. Accordingly, despite his young age, Kurz has contributed substantially to the policies of the People’s Party.
For the Freedom Party, the anti-system campaigning is nothing new. The party has positioned itself as an alternative to the invidious establishment ever since the party was founded. During the last few years, the party never had to match itself with another party, as all other parties naturally attacked the Freedom Party before elections.
Depicted as the underdog of Austria’s political landscape, the Freedom Party does not even need to state that they offer an alternative to the system, since all other parties are usually eager to distance themselves anyway.
Surprisingly, the Green Party turned out to be the biggest loser of the general election despite being originally founded as an alternative to the established parties. Nonetheless, the Greens were just as eager to be part of the system throughout the last legislative cycle as all other parties.
Though previously condemning the cult of personality, which was practiced by other parties, in the end “Eva” and “Sacha” were smiling from election posters, just like “Jörg” and “Sebastian Kurz.”
Additionally, points of criticism like the dual mandate, which was depicted as a dangerous practice of a malfunctioning system, was put into place by the Greens just as by all other parties when Eva Glawischnig served as chairwoman, frontrunner and speaker of the Green parliamentary group at the same time.
Nobody seemed to criticize this at any point. Whether the Greens were punished by their voters because of this, is questionable. It is obvious, however, that there is hardly anything “anti-system” remaining in the formerly “Green Alternative.”
Why then, did so many give their vote to parties, who staged themselves as an alternative to the established system? According to the prominent Austrian political scientist Anton Pelinka, “Education seems to be the most apparent determinant.”
Anti-system campaigning first and foremost addresses voters with a lower formal education. Not having obtained an academic degree often correlates with lower income, which leads to uncertainties or even anxieties about one’s future. Voters of this group are more likely to distrust the existing system and search for alternatives.
Running a very personalized campaign is the common ground of anti-system campaigning all over Europe. By focusing on the person of the respective frontrunner, the voter might forget about the party behind them. As the youth and the rhetoric of the candidate poses a contrast to the traditional political system, this can help to attract voters, as seen in the case of Kurz and Macron.
The People’s Party and the Freedom Party have of course used other strategies and populist themes, but the anti-system campaigning definitely contributed to their gains. In the end it seems that anti-system campaigning is what keeps the system going.