Elections in Austria: climate crisis and media crisis

Among the reasons for the modest performance: the SPÖ didn't succeed in being perceived as 'the original' environment party


In the Austrian elections last Sunday, the conservative ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP gained a stunning 37%, and the Greens returned to parliament by more than tripling their vote. Social Democrats however performed weakly. Among the reasons for the modest performance: the SPÖ didn’t succeed in being perceived as ‘the original’ environment party and the headwind of conservative media working against Social Democrats in Austria is considerable.

Austria has voted last Sunday. The winner was ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz from the centre-right ÖVP, with 37%. Kurz’s former coalition partner, the extreme right-wing FPÖ, lost 10% and plummeted to 16%. Altogether, the coalition of conservatives and nationalists has lost about 4%. Although this is fundamentally positive, many had hoped that the numerous scandals of the two parties would lead to a higher loss of votes. In fact, the liberals were able to attract some voters, as were the Greens, who – due to the ubiquity of the climate issue – returned to the parliament with 14%.

But those who couldn’t benefit from the scandals of the right-wing parties and the prominence of the climate issue were the Social Democrats (SPÖ). They only scored 21% of the vote. The reasons for the modest performance of the SPÖ are complex. We will address two causes here, that are important for the future work of the party.

Climate: Voters rather go to ‘the original’

Already for the election to the European Parliament in May 2019, the SPÖ took the climate issue seriously. The topic received additional momentum in Austria, as the Greens didn’t take the electoral threshold in the 2017 elections and weren’t represented in parliament for the last two years. This was also because in 2017 many Green voters had voted for the Social Democrat candidate. It was foreseeable that many or most of those floating voters would go back to the Greens. They had not wanted the Greens to be excluded from parliament.

The question was, however, whether the SPÖ would be able to tie at least a significant part of these former Green voters to Social Democracy by picking up the climate issue. This did not succeed.

There was no lack of goodwill, nor of workable concepts. The SPÖ has propagated a major green investment program, a sort of Green New Deal, calling for the expansion and reduction of prices of public transport and the increased use of sustainable energy. The environmental programs of the SPÖ and the Greens were very similar. The problem was (and still is) that not the Social Democrats are perceived as the main environmental party, but the Greens. Voters rather go to what they perceive as ‘the original’.

The question here is how Social Democracy can gain credibility in the environmental field, or whether it should better focus on its core issues and leave the climate field to the Greens. The signs of the times are not difficult to interpret here. With Fridays for Future, we are experiencing the greatest mobilisation of young people in many years. Climate change has also reached the working class as one of the greatest concerns for the future. If Social Democracy wants to become the leading force of the future, it must find a strong and clear line in environmental protection and communicate it successfully.

Successful communication against the headwind of conservative media

Another specifically Austrian problem (but not only) is that the SPÖ fails more and more to successfully place its own content in the media. This is mainly because the ÖVP has built a tremendous media power in Austria. Apart from public broadcasting, almost all Austrian daily newspapers and magazines belong to the centre-right/conservative camp. The Austrian print media landscape is either owned by ÖVP-friendly banks and entrepreneurs or kept on a short leash with advertisements from big industry and government.

The ÖVP is working – in its own words – on “Message Control”. In reality, this means that journalists, editors-in-chief and publishers are under enormous daily pressure.

It is not for nothing that the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom called before the election to counteract the “Orbanisation” of the Austrian media and to see free, critical reporting as what it is: the essence of every democracy.

Already at the 2017 election, the newspapers presented Kurz as a Messiah-like figure and led a continuous negative campaign against the SPÖ. And similarly, in the run-up to the 2019 election, the coverage of the centre-right and tabloid media remained one-sided and biased. Each tiny problem of the SPÖ was played up, the Social Democrat lead candidate Pamela Rendi-Wagner was painted as incompetent, the selection of images seemed of purpose to ridicule the party. Reports on the ÖVP candidate Kurz however were always friendly, the photos perfect.

In order to be successful in elections, the Austrian Social Democracy will have to find ways to get in touch with their supporters and the electorate unfiltered. One way may be to build successful own media channels.

Find all related publications

Towards a renewables scale-up that works for nature

Recovery Watch series

Improving territorial justice

Transparency, inclusiveness, capacity building and strategy in the Territorial Just Transition Plans

Fairness and acceptability of environmental externality pricing in Europe

Environmental externality pricing has been long promoted to address environmental problems. The theoretical advantages of […]

The road to a just transition

A comparative analysis of Territorial Just Transition Plans
Find all related events

Silver Rose Awards 2023

Award ceremony and reception
Valladolid, Spain (Expert meeting)

Coming together for a Just Transition

Linking climate action and social justice in Europe
Brussels, Belgium

Beyond Growth Conference

Pathways towards Sustainable Prosperity in the EU
Find all related news

A new social contract for the well-being of people and the planet

Call to action on Just Transition

New study on how and why social issues have increased in prominence during the EP negotiations

Progress towards inclusive economic transition but need for further improvements in terminology and framing of vulnerable groups

New manifesto giving international impetus to Lula da Silva’s environmental policy

FEPS President, among the 50 scientists and former politicians from Brazil and Portugal who signed the manifesto

FEPS delegation at COP27

FEPS delegation was present at COP27, with the strategic objectives of mobilizing climate finance for […]
Find all related in the media
In the media

Just Transition: A new social contract for wellbeing of people and planet

by Euractiv 11/07/2023
Euractiv's article ahead of the high-level expert meeting on Just Transition in Valladolid, organized by FEPS, Solidar, and other think tanks and civil society organizations.

A szmogtól és a mikroműanyagoktól rettegő magyarok akkor vehetők rá a zöldítésre, ha egyénileg jól járnak

by Qubit 22/05/2023
'Hungarians who fear smog and microplastics can be persuaded to go green if they are doing well individually' article about FEPS policy study 'Talking green in Hungary'Hungary', in collaboration with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Policy Solutions

Magyarországon már kínos lett a “rezsicsökkentés”

by Népszava 22/05/2023
'"Utility reduction" has already become embarrassing in Hungary' Népszava article about FEPS policy study 'Talking green in Hungary', in collaboration with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Policy Solutions

Magyarokat kérdeztek a zöld kommunikációról

by 24.hu 22/05/2023
'Why do garbage collectors throw selectively collected waste into one? Hungarians were asked about green communication' Extensive article about FEPS policy study 'Talking Green in Hungary', in collaboration with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Policy Solutions