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Negative campaigning in Austria: Abundant, colorful and ingenious

Written by Marcelo Jenny and Martin Haselmayer.

Systematic empirical research on negative campaigning in Austria has focused on the past decade (Dolezal et al. 2015). It has demonstrated that a lot of unfriendly rhetorical sniping is exchanged not only across the government – opposition divide, but also between coalition partners, especially in SPÖ-ÖVP coalitions. Figure 1, which is based on party press releases, shows that the two largest Austrian parties traded a lot of negative messages during the last four national election campaigns, no matter whether they were in government together (2008, 2013) or not (2002, 2006).

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Fig. 1: Frequency of negative statements in press releases exchanged between SPÖ and ÖVP per day, 2002-2013, N=1,705

To gain further insights we currently study the tonality of statements. We have asked online coders to rate the ‘tonality’ of party press releases from recent election campaigns on a 5-point scale ranging from ‘neutral’ to ‘very strongly negative’.

The Austrian multi-party system makes coalition government a necessity, but the parliamentary majority requirement in combination with a concern for ideological compatibility limit the available options. We expected parties to carefully select the targets of negative campaigning and to be less aggressive against a coalition partner. Our empirical data in Figure 2 provide only partial support for that argument.

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Fig. 2: Tonality of negative statements between government parties and other party dyads in grand coalition (SPÖ-ÖVP) and other coalitions (ÖVP-FPÖ/BZÖ) (2002-2013), N=3,394

Note: Larger values indicates a more negative tonality of campaign statements.

On average, government parties issued less negative statements about each other than opposition parties in the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. Confronted with a wave of criticism from outside and within, the latter were more careful with words to preserve the coalition. They also constituted a more ideologically homogenous coalition than the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition.

Figure 3 points to a kind of division of labour in negative campaigning in the SPÖ and ÖVP. Cabinet members issued weaker attacks on average than regional party officials, party secretaries or Members of Parliament.

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Fig. 3: Tonality of campaign statements of actors from government parties (SPÖ, ÖVP 2013), N=279

Note: Larger values indicates a more negative tonality of campaign statements.

Negative campaigning in official party campaign materials ranges from the absurd to the childish, but one has to acknowledge the ingenious ways in which parties have tried to derail rival campaigns and poked fun at each other. Extreme hyperbole characterizes a movie spot (“Paths to Freedom”) of the ‘Alliance for the Future of Austria’ (BZÖ) for the 2013 regional elections in Carinthia. The spot combined iconic historical events (US Marines raising the flag in Okinawa) with pictures of rival regional politicians set next to dictators such as Ceaucescu, Milosevic and others (http://t1p.de/dkb0). Cinemas boycotted the spot and a court ordered it taken off the party’s website. Many degrees lower in negative tonality is a series of Green Party campaign spots for the same year’s national elections. They depicted top candidates of other parties as children and the Green party leader as the responsible adult in national politics [http://t1p.de/3xsf].

Contemporary pop culture is replete with super heroes from comics and movies and the FPÖ has repeatedly employed comics and super heroes in its campaign leaflets. HC-Man, carrying the initials of FPÖ party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, in the left picture below, debuted in 2004 and defying other parties’ ridicule reappeared in later elections. The comic strip in the middle is from a FPÖ campaign leaflet for the Vienna regional elections of 2010. Its references to historical Turkish sieges of Vienna carry the anti-Muslim slant of the party’s campaign.

In last month’s regional election in Vienna the FPÖ employed the super hero theme again – with a twist. It attacked regional government leader and long-time SPÖ mayor Michael Häupl by casting him as a fallen super hero. The SPÖ campaign presented the mayor as the city’s problem solver, the FPÖ tried to ridicule him in that role. The image on the right is of an archetypical social housing complex for the working class, whose vote today is split between SPÖ and FPÖ. A lone Austrian flag among Turkish, Rainbow and ISIS flags insinuates that city social housing primarily caters to immigrants, lesbians and homosexuals and sympathizers of Islamic terrorism. Regional public broadcasting gets a kick, too, for being a leftist mouthpiece.

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Fig. 4: Elements of recent FPÖ campaigns: comics and super heroes

Sources: FPÖ campaign leaflets from Vienna regional elections 2010 and 2015

The following two examples, also from the recent regional elections in Vienna, transgress the boundaries of authoritative party statements. After successfully entering national parliament in 2013 by sapping off electoral support from the Greens and the ÖVP, the young liberal party NEOS had to convince voters that it was more than a one-hit wonder. So it came as an unwelcome surprise when an advert in a newspaper’s real estate section offered the party’s headquarters for rent and referred to it as a “failed start-up”. The ad listed the party leader’s name and phone number. The ÖVP initially made fun of it in social media, but apologized after it was traced back to an apparently unauthorized act by a party employee.

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Fig. 5: ‘Guerrilla’ campaigning in the Vienna regional elections 2015

Source: own collection of campaign adverts

The advert to the right employs mimicry to catch attention and then delivers a surprise message. The pink background, the party color of NEOS, tricks a reader into expecting an official party ad. The text, however, is a plea for voting for the SPÖ. Denying electoral success to Strache by voting for Häupl was the most important thing, it argues. Another ad in green made a similar plea to sympathizers of the Greens. An anonymous “private initiative” declared authorship, so we count it as another instance of negative campaigning by party sympathizers. It also demonstrates how complex negative campaigning in a multi-party system sometimes is: a party (NEOS) is attacked by sympathizers of another one (SPÖ) to derail the electoral success of a third one (FPÖ).

An account of negative campaigning in Austrian elections is not comprehensive without mentioning the use of damaging rumours, true and untrue, about candidates. The most consequential example is the Social Democrats’ leaking of information about ÖVP candidate Kurt Waldheim’s wartime past ahead of the presidential elections of 1986. He won, but the issue of his and Austrians’ contributions in general to Nazi atrocities turned into something much bigger as years of confrontation with the past and national self-reflection followed. Today internet and social media provide ample opportunities for anonymous malicious statements about candidates. Sometimes they were successfully traced back to members or employees of a rival party.

Negative campaigning employs a variety of campaign means and runs on distribution channels that vary in authoritativeness and repute. It constitutes a major challenge for academic research, which consequently should cast a wide net in data collection to keep up with real world developments.

Marcelo Jenny and Martin Haselmayer are both attached to the University of Vienna. This article is part of the Center for British Politics (CPB) research series into negative campaigning. Image credit: CC by Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.

References:

Dolezal Martin, Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik and Wolfgang C. Müller (2015). When Do Parties Attack their Competitors? Negative Campaigning in Austria, 2002–2008. In: Nai Allesandro and Annemarie S. Walter (eds.), New Perspectives on Negative Campaigning: Measures, Causes and Effects. Colchester: ECPR Press: 163-179.

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