State elections – difficult ÖVP hurdles before new elections

If need be, he’ll bang on the table. Franz Hörl, head of the Tyrolean Economic Association and tough representative of the cable car industry, rumbled that he had no sympathy for “pathetic performances” by long-standing officials and “would-be stars” in the ÖVP. His call for order via the “Tiroler Tageszeitung” was obviously directed at the Tyrolean Chamber of Commerce President Christoph Walser, who had publicly resented the fact that Tyrol’s outgoing ÖVP state chief Günther Platter on Monday had the previous state economics councillor, Anton Mattle, elected as his designated successor by the state party executive in an express procedure. Finally, in Innsbruck, the sparrows were whistling from the rooftops that the head of the Chamber of Commerce himself would have liked to succeed Platter.

If there’s one thing the Tyroleans don’t need now and in the coming weeks, it’s internal wrangling. After all, according to an agreement between the previous coalition partners ÖVP and the Greens, it has been clear since Wednesday that the state elections in Tyrol will be brought forward from spring 2023 to September 25 this year. The necessary sanction in the state parliament on June 24 is only a formal act.

As a long-time mayor of Galtür in the Paznauntal valley, the level-headed Anton Mattle has made a name for himself in Tyrol and, at a young age, gained a reputation as a crisis manager in extreme situations during the avalanche disaster in his home town in February 1999. Nevertheless, he has his hands full without hesitation in order to do reasonably well as the ÖVP’s top candidate on September 25th. For the Tyrolean ÖVP, which brought in a whopping absolute majority at the time of state patriarch Eduard Wallnöfer around half a century ago, an impending fall from a good 44 percent in the 2018 state election to 35 percent or even less, as polls predict, is a not unrealistic horror scenario .

With the 59-year-old interim candidate Mattle, the Tyrolean ÖVP is also trying to draw a line under the less than glorious initial phase of the corona pandemic. In March 2020, Tyrol and Ischgl were in the headlines across Europe. However, not positively, but involuntarily as a shooter in the Alps and thus gave Tyrol the embarrassing image of the corona virus slingshot under the eyes of the local authorities and state politics in Innsbruck.

A test for the Platter successor

Platter’s successor has the advantage of not being in the state government in 2020 because he only became state economics officer a year ago. Internally, the designated Tyrolean governor also has the benefit of being represented as a farmer and owner of a small electronics shop in the Farmers’ and Business Association and understanding something of the problems of farmers and small businesses. However, the ambitious ÖVP politician first has to prove himself as an election campaigner at state level.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who has been head of government for six months now, but has only been officially elected ÖVP federal party chairman for a good month, has a particular interest in Mattles doing as well as possible in the state elections on September 25. Tyrol is one of the black core countries, without which it would be illusory to hold first place in the National Council elections.

This applies even more to Lower Austria, and not just because the number of voters was more than twice as high. It is also the home state of Nehammer and, thanks to the axis to state governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner, an important base for every ÖVP federal party chairman. For Sebastian Kurz, too, the special support of “Hanni” was a more favorable springboard for promotion to the People’s Party after Reinhold Mitterlehner took power in spring 2017 than Vienna.

Mikl-Leitner is threatened with losing the absolute majority

Lower Austria agrees with Tyrol that the next regular date for the state elections will also be in the first months of 2023, sometime between the end of January and March. Due to fears that in the winter months of 2023 the pandemic could once again have a stranglehold on the turquoise-green federal government and also Lower Austria’s state politics, speculation was circulating months ago that the state elections in Lower Austria could also be brought forward to autumn of this year. The ÖVP, which got an absolute majority with Mikl-Leitner in January 2018 “ass tight” (Copyright Alexander Van der Bellen), has so far wiped this off the table as a spin.

The former interior minister and the designated Tyrolean ÖVP boss Mattle also have another fact in common: polls predict that the always busy governor and her party will shrink in the next election. However, at a higher level, from almost 50 percent to around 42 percent.

The difference to Tyrol is also that in Lower Austria there is still a proportional representation system and not a coalition system as in Innsbruck. This means that every party is automatically represented in the state government from a certain number of votes of around ten percent. While black and green have ruled in Tyrol since 2013, Mikl-Leitner leads a state government that also includes the SPÖ and FPÖ. Long before the next state elections in St. Pölten, there is no doubt about one thing. Even in the event of a clear fall, the ÖVP will remain the strongest party by far ahead of the SPÖ, and nobody will seriously dispute its claim to the governor’s chair. Even more so, where the SPÖ with the quick-mouthed top candidate Vice Governor Franz Schnabl continues to languish in polls with a maximum of 25 percent of the votes.

Even if the ÖVP in Lower Austria doesn’t want to hear anything about early state elections, Mikl-Leitner tries diligently to show the population how indispensable a strong people’s party is. The day before the federal government presented its anti-inflation package this week, Mikl-Leitner publicly put pressure on the corresponding relief.

An election failure in Lower Austria would in any case make Nehammer’s life as chancellor much more difficult than a defeat in Tyrol. The most unpleasant news for the ÖVP federal party chairman is currently coming from further west. Vorarlberg’s ÖVP, otherwise a one-seater for the People’s Party as in football pools jargon, is sinking in the affair surrounding the ÖVP business association in recent weeks, just like the stage at the Bregenz Festival in Lake Constance. Governor Markus Wallner, who has been in office for a good decade and thus belongs to the old ranks of the state governors, is struggling to keep his head above water.

Haslauer stumbled because of Corona

The Salzburg governor Wilfried Haslauer felt the same way in November 2021. The ÖVP head of state, who was able to overthrow SPÖ governor Gabi Burgstaller from the head post after a financial affair in 2013, threatened to go under politically in the corona lockdown. With hair-raising statements about experts, he alienated them and his close compatriots. In addition to Tyrol, Lower Austria and the SPÖ-led Carinthia, Salzburg is the fourth federal state in which the regular date of the state election falls in the first half of 2023. Salzburg has a special status because Haslauer is leading a three-party coalition there with the Greens and Neos.

For Salzburg, as for all ÖVP state organizations that soon have to go to a state election, they cannot hope for an upswing from the federal party. Things were very different in the 2018 state elections. Sebastian Kurz’s star shone so brightly and untainted by any allegations of corruption that voters in the farthest reaches of Salzburg’s Pinzgau, in posh Baden in Lower Austria and in the Ausserfern region of Tyrol were duly blinded.

In addition, the circumstances surrounding it have changed completely. In 2018 Austria was in a boom phase. The federal government is now distributing billions with the anti-inflation package, but the muffled accompanying tones are dampening the mood of Austrians and creating uncertainty – from record inflation to the effects of the war in Ukraine. Not even the pandemic is really taking a summer break. So Nehammer automatically works up a sweat.

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