The Emergence of Right-Wing Populism in Austria and Germany: A Comparative Analysis of the FPÖ and A

Abstract In the past few decades, populist parties have pushed themselves to the forefront of the political scene in Europe. Two parties that have attracted particular attention are the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs; FPÖ) and the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland; AfD). The FPÖ is one of the most prominent populist parties in Europe, often referred to as a poster child for the movement. The AfD, on the other hand, is one of the newest parties and the first successful one of its kind in postwar Germany. This paper analyzes the reasons behind the discrepancies in the rise of these two parties, offering three potential explanations: differences in electoral systems, timing of electoral breakthroughs, and changes in social and political cleavages. Through qualitative case study analysis, it concludes that although all three play a role, shifting cleavages played the most significant role in the differentiated rise of the two parties.


In the past few decades, populist parties have pushed themselves to the forefront of the political scene across the globe, leading scholars to speak of a “populist Zeitgeist.”1 This movement is perhaps most evident in Europe, where such parties, especially those on the right, have entered the mainstream. Two parties that have recently attracted attention from worldwide media are the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or FPÖ) and the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland or AfD). The FPÖ is one of the most prominent populist parties in Europe - in fact, many scholars consider it to be the poster child of modern European right-wing populism.2 The AfD, on the other hand, is one of the newest populist parties. To the surprise of many political analysts,3 it shows promise to be the first relatively successful right-wing populist party in postwar German history.

Although these parties are often grouped together, they differ in many key ways. One of the most notable is their age. First founded in 1955, the FPÖ began to gain substantial ground in the late 1980s. The AfD, on the other hand, was only founded in 2013. Given the similarity between the history, cultures, language, and political systems of Austria and Germany, this discrepancy is surprising at first glance. This paper seeks to determine the main reasons for the gap between the development of a successful right-wing populist party in Austria and Germany. I begin by providing a cultural context for how the far-right are perceived in both countries. With this in mind, I then propose three potential explanations for the time lag. These are the differences in: 1) electoral systems, 2) the timing of the electoral breakthrough of the respective party, and 3) the culmination of new social and political cleavages. After providing the theoretical background for each of these explanations, I apply them to each of the countries. Through a comparative qualitative analysis, I ultimately conclude that the development of new structural cleavages is the most useful explanation for this trend.


World War II set the foundation for the modern political environment in most European countries. This is perhaps most obvious in Germany, which shouldered the majority of the blame for the war. Devastated by years of war, partitioned into two states, and antagonized worldwide, Germany had little choice but to confront the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. As a result, a sense of Kollektivschuld – “collective [German] guilt,” a term coined by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung in 1945 – prevailed. The corresponding movement of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – literally, coming to terms with one’s past – dominated the cultural, societal, and, to a certain extent, political spheres until the end of the post war century.4 Even today, there is a strong distaste for and resistance to right-wing extremism in German society.5

The effect of this movement on German politics is clear. The political and legal system constructed by the current constitution which was put into effect in 1949 with the approval of the Allied Powers, is a “defensive democracy.”6 This means that government and state institutions are not only allowed but also obligated to defend against a devolution back into far right-wing extremism, which is equated with the National Socialist regime. The Constitutional Court is perhaps the best example. It has the power to outlaw any organization, group, or political party deemed to be “hostile to the constitution” due to its extreme rightist discourse and/or ideology.7 Another notable example is the prohibition of all references to Nazi symbols and language. Politicians and public figures are often tried and convicted on such charges.8

This “culture of contrition” has made it very difficult for far-right parties to gain a footing in Germany.9 Even if a party evades censure from the Constitutional Court, it still must face the public. Germans tend to regard far-right parties with suspicion, fearing that they veer too close to National Socialism.10 The AfD, especially in its early days, managed to avoid being associated with Nazism, very likely due to its primarily Eurosceptic platform. By presenting itself as a single-issue party focused on the Eurozone crisis and avoiding xenophobic and strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric, it side-stepped the cultural resistance to the far right and earned the favor of a notable proportion of the public.11

Austria had a strikingly different experience. Characterized as the “first free state to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression” by the Allies’ Moscow Declaration of 1943, it evaded the war guilt that haunted Germany.12 Political, social, and economic elites gladly adopted a “culture of victimization,” thereby dissociating Austria from Nazism. This is far from true – Hitler himself was Austrian, and many Austrian politicians were complicit to the Nazi regime. At the end of World War I, many Austrians called for unification with Germany, a proposal the Allies rejected. The republic that was instituted instead dissolved into civil war and fascism. Although there was some resistance to the annexation by Germany, many Austrians welcomed the advance and collaborated with the National Socialist regime throughout the war.13

As a result of this national myth of innocence, Austria never went through a Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Since it never had to critically reexamine its past and its relationship to right-wing extremism, no significant resistance to the far right exists.14 In fact, many former Nazis were able to reinvent themselves and become prominent politicians in the two major parties – the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) – directly after independence.15 As a result, the FPÖ could present itself as a legitimate political actor with little to no protest. The most significant obstacle to the party’s ascension to power was the traditional dominance of the SPÖ and ÖVP.16 Once it was able to attract a considerable following, it has consistently been a key party in Austrian politics. POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS

Explanation 1: Electoral Systems

Beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, many European states moved to reform their electoral systems. One of the most notable trends was the transition away from majoritarian systems in favor of those based on proportional representation (PR).17 The most common majoritarian systems are plurality-based. This means that voters typically cast a single ballot for one candidate running in their district, and the candidate that receives the highest proportion of the vote is elected into office.18 In PR systems, on the other hand, voters usually cast a ballot for a party list, and the proportion of the votes each party receives translates into the proportion of seats they are allocated in the elected body.19 Many states impose minimum percentage thresholds, meaning that only parties that surpass this minimum are allocated seats.20. Austria is an example of a state that uses PR with a minimum threshold. Other states, like Germany, utilize mixed electoral systems, which combine aspects of majoritarian and PR formulae in the election of a single body.21 Specifically, Germany follows a mixed-member proportional system (MMP), in which half of the national parliament, known as the Bundestag, is elected directly through plurality and the other half through PR.22

The type of electoral system utilized by a state greatly impacts the dynamic between the political parties within it. This concept was perhaps most famously expressed by Maurice Duverger in his seminal book on political parties. In this work, he presents what is now known as Duverger’s law: “the simple-majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system.”23 In other words, he postulates that majoritarian formulae encourage the development of two-party systems as they provide significant electoral and representative benefits to the most successful party and penalize the others, especially small parties. He also introduces what is now commonly referred to as Duverger’s hypothesis: “the simple-majority system with second ballot and proportional representation favor multi-partyism.”24 Simply put, he conjectures that both mixed electoral and PR systems tend to produce multiparty systems, for they aim to include minority parties.

The influence of Duverger’s work cannot be understated. Indeed, the arguments in favor of or against the adoption or employment of these three major categories of electoral systems are largely based upon these two theories. The prevailing case in support of majoritarian systems is that they promote stability by forcing an effective working majority party in the parliament.25 In contrast, proponents of PR contend that since minority views are taken into account, these systems this encourages fairer, more democratic representation of the attitudes and preferences of the electorate.26 Accordingly, PR systems present more favorable climates for smaller parties, making it easier for extremist parties, such as right-wing populist parties, to acquire seats.27 Mixed electoral systems employ some elements of PR, indicating that this conclusion can logically be extended to them as well. It is important to note that mixed systems tend to favor either majoritarian or PR formulae; as a result, some may present a more favorable climate to minority parties than others. The more proportional an electoral system is, the fewer barriers exist to impede smaller parties from gaining representation. I hypothesize that Austria’s electoral system is more proportional than that of Germany, which allowed the FPÖ to gain seats more easily and earlier than right-wing extremist parties in Germany. Explanation 2: Timing of the Electoral Breakthrough

In multiparty systems, parties attract attention not when they are initially formed, but instead when they win a portion of the vote significant enough to impact and vary support bases for other parties. The literature refers to this phenomenon as an “electoral breakthrough.”28 Since populist parties are – at least initially – on the fringes of the political spectrum, most need to experience such a breakthrough before gaining any considerable amount of influence. Schain argues that this can be achieved in two ways: 1) through converting voters who had previously supported another party, and 2) through mobilizing previous non-voters.29 Goodwyn coined the term “populist moment” to describe the “societal crisis constellations” that are often a prerequisite to the breakthrough of such parties and/or movements, regardless of which of the two tactics they utilize.30 Though he focused on American politics, the general principles of his analysis prove valuable in the case of Western Europe. Howard asserts that there are three societal crisis constellations generally responsible for the rise of populism in the region: “increasing economic uncertainty in the new global economy; …the increasing influx of people from other countries and regions…; and …the gradual erosion of the elite consensus between the major parties on the center-left and center-right of the political spectrum to isolate and exclude extremist parties.”31

The concept of elite consensus is valuable in my analysis. Katz and Mair present arguably the most influential framework for understanding this idea in their seminal work on cartel parties. They trace the development of different party types throughout the history of Western European democracies. These parties differ based on their relationship with civil society on the one hand and the state on the other. They contend that the contemporary era is dominated by “cartel parties,” which they define as a phenomenon “in which colluding parties become agents of the state and employ the resources of the state (the party state) to ensure their own collective survival.”32 In other words, instead of representing the wishes and priorities of the electorate, the large, established mainstream parties work together in order to eliminate competition and ensure that they maintain power. To achieve this, they typically employ resources offered by the state apparatus, such as funding and media access. As a result, the mainstream parties essentially become a part of the state, and thereby more or less abandon their role as agents of civil society. Their political platforms converge, and competition between them, though it exists, becomes increasingly muted.33

Although this collusion limits competition from outside parties, it of course cannot completely suppress political opposition. In recent years, right-wing populist parties have become perhaps the most successful protest parties. These parties attack the tradition of elite consensus, contending that the parties no longer represent the interests of the people.34 As mentioned earlier, this situation is one of the three societal crisis constellations that contribute to the likelihood of an electoral breakthrough. I hypothesize that, though both Austria and Germany began to grapple with these constellations around the same time, they were perceived by the electorate as more acute in Austria earlier than in Germany. Since the FPÖ was active and able to both detect and capitalize on these concerns, it could achieve its electoral breakthrough earlier. Explanation 3: Changes in Social and Political Cleavages

Globalization has profoundly impacted the ways in which states, societies, and individuals interact. This process has introduced increased competition in a number of sectors, including the economic (in terms of a larger world market and internal diversification), cultural (in terms of increased immigration, most notably from non-European ethnic groups into the West), and political (in terms of tensions between states and supranational organizations).35 In response to these changes, Rokkan postulates that globalization is a new “critical juncture” that will lead to a restructuring of political and social cleavages.36 In other words, globalization is redefining the concerns and priorities of citizens and thereby the social and political groups with which they identify.

The traditional understanding of the political space classifies parties, movements, and attitudes along the left-right spectrum. Before World War II, there were two main dimensions in which the left and the right differentiated: 1) socio-economic, defined by class, and 2) cultural, defined by religion. The socio-economic dimension mainly focused on government regulation of the economy and social welfare policy, with the left advocating for stricter regulation and strong welfare and the right for the opposite.37 In Europe, the cultural dimension was dominated by the conflict between Catholics, represented by the right, and Protestants, represented by the left.38 Post-industrialization, secularization, technological progress, and rising education levels, among other things, ushered in a series of political, social, and economic changes that led to the development of new structural conflicts beginning in the 1960s. These so-called “New Socialist Movements” revitalized the class conflict, shifting the focus from the working class to the middle class. Perhaps more importantly, these movements redefined the cultural dimension: Instead of a conflict based on religious identity, it became one between those who advocated for cultural liberalism and social reforms (the left) and those who called for the protection of traditional, often Christian values and institutions (the right).39

Globalization has brought about another shift in priorities. Kriesi et al. present a particularly interesting and comprehensive theory of this new phenomenon. They classify the new structure as an opposition between the “winners” and “losers” of globalization. The winners benefit from the intensified competition and likely include “entrepreneurs and qualified employees in sectors open to international competition as well as all kinds of cosmopolitan citizens.”40 The losers, which likely include “entrepreneurs and qualified employees in traditionally protected sectors [as well as] all unqualified employees and citizens who strongly identify themselves with their national community,” feel threatened by the increased competition.41The priorities of these two groups do not fit neatly into the old left-right classifications in either dimension. The losers tend to support “demarcation” – the protection of national boundaries and sovereignty – while the winners support “integration” – the opening of national borders and increased international integration. In terms of socio-economic positions, the losers are likely to back pro-state, protectionist policies that favor national markets, while the winners will advocate for pro-market policies that increase national competitiveness on the global market.42

As in the New Socialist Movements, the cultural dimension has changed far more dramatically. Immigration, nationalism – which is increasingly expressed and defined by ethnic identity – and, in Europe, integration into the European Union (EU), are now the most salient cultural issues. The losers tend to espouse ethno-nationalist, even xenophobic values, calling for restrictive immigration policies and limited (if any) integration into the EU. The winners support a more cosmopolitan approach, supporting more open immigration policies and continued integration into the EU. It is important to note that the cultural dimension has grown, and continues to grow, in its significance for the electorate and thereby for political parties.43

Indeed, as the winner-loser divide becomes more prominent, appealing to the opposing groups becomes increasingly relevant for parties. Kitschelt and McGann were among the earliest to argue that the axis of party competition has shifted, cutting across the traditional left-right positions on both the cultural and socio-economic dimensions.44 The mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right have largely failed to adjust to these new axes. Although the exact positions vary between countries, both the mainstream left and right generally support increased economic denationalization, the maintenance of current immigration policies, and European as well as (to varying degrees) international integration. The mainstream parties have taken, however conservatively, the winners’ side.45

The convergence of these positions bolstered the development of new fringe parties on both the left and the right that advocate for the losers. Kriesi et al. characterize these parties as the “radical left” and the “populist right.”46 The policies of the radical left tend to concentrate on socio-economic protectionism, while those of the populist right focus on cultural protectionism. Specifically, the populist right in Europe adopts a xenophobic, even racist position that vehemently denounces the presence of immigrants. Due to the rising importance of cultural concerns, the populist right has fared far better electorally than the radical left. In hopes of countering the success of right-wing populists, mainstream parties have begun adopting more culturally protectionist policies, demonstrating the transformation of the political landscape.47

In short, globalization has led to the development of new political and social cleavages. Instead of the traditional left-right divide, we now see one between the winners and losers of globalization. The tendency of the mainstream centrist parties to opt for the priorities of the winners encouraged the entrance of new types of fringes parties to the political stage: the radical left and the populist right. The former concentrated on the socio-economic dimension, opposing economic liberalization, while the latter emphasized the cultural dimension, speaking against immigration and integration on both the European and international level. The populist right has proved to be more influential, causing mainstream parties to adopt more culturally protectionist policies. This has redefined the political spectrum: it is now structured as an opposition between the mainstream center parties (on the “left”) and the populist right (on the “right”). I hypothesize that this shift culminated earlier in Austria than it did in Germany, allowing the FPÖ to come to prominence earlier than any similar party in Germany.


Explanation 1: Electoral Systems

World War II strongly influenced the development of electoral systems in a number of European states, including Germany and Austria. This is perhaps more evident in the former. For the election of its main parliamentary body, the Weimar Republic, the interwar government in Germany, employed a PR system with no minimum threshold. Accordingly, any party that earned even one seat was granted representation. Crippling political fragmentation resulted, as numerous small extremist parties were allowed to enter the Reichstag.48 Hoping to avoid repeating this problem, the authors of the postwar constitution in West Germany instituted an MMP system for the election of the new primary parliamentary body, the Bundestag. They sought to combine the advantages of both majoritarian and PR systems by having half of the Bundestag elected through plurality and the other half through PR.49

This is achieved through a split-ballot system. In parliamentary elections, each voter casts two ballots: one for an individual candidate in their electoral district and the other for a party list. The first votes, those for the candidates, are evaluated based on plurality, that is, the candidate that receives the highest percentage of the vote in her or her respective district wins the seat. The second votes, those for the party lists, are pooled together, and each party receives the number of seats that corresponds to its percentage of the vote. Importantly, the constitution imposes a 5% minimum threshold for parties. The specific calculations that determine the exact number of seats allocated to each party are complex and bear little relevance for my analysis.50 It is, however, worth noting that, in 2013, the Constitutional Court ordered a change in the allocation calculation. These new regulations provide additional safeguards to ensure that no party receives less seats than its share of the vote indicates.51

Austria, on the other hand, did not establish a mixed electoral system for the election of its primary parliamentary body, the Nationalrat, opting instead for one based solely on principles of PR. When electing the Nationalrat, voters cast one ballot, which holds up to three votes: one for a party list and up to two “preferential votes” for specific candidates on these lists. If a candidate receives enough preferential votes, he or she may move higher on the party list and therefore become more likely to gain a seat in the parliament. It is important to note that these preferential votes cannot translate into majoritarian formulae, so the Austrian electoral system cannot be considered a mixed one. Each party that receives at least 4% of the total vote or one seat in a regional district will be apportioned seats based on the percentage of votes it gained.52 The calculations for determining the exact number of seats assigned to each party are perhaps even more complex than those in Germany and, as in the German case, are not significant for my analysis.53

If we consider electoral systems to be placed on a spectrum with pure PR on one side and pure majoritarian on the other side, it is logical to infer that the Austrian system is further on the PR side than the German one. The primary basis for this conclusion is the formulae used by each state: Austria exclusively applies PR ones, while Germany employs both PR and majoritarian ones. Moreover, the lower minimum percentage threshold in Austria (4% as opposed to 5% in Germany) makes it easier for parties to qualify for representation. Since Austria has a more proportional system than Germany, it presents a more favorable environment for smaller parties, like right-wing extremist parties, than that of Germany. This is in accordance with my hypothesis: the FPÖ could gain seats in the Nationalrat more easily than similar parties in Germany could in the Bundestag, allowing it to enter the parliament earlier.

Explanation 2: Timing of the Electoral Breakthrough

Politics in postwar Austria were dominated by a cartel party. The SPÖ and ÖVP established an informal system of “neo-corporate consociationalism,” in which they cooperated not only with one another but also with “social partners,” that is, corporate institutions and labor unions, to exclude competition.54 In this system, called Proporz, mainstream politicians and leaders from these institutions would meet almost exclusively out of the public sphere and negotiate a consensus on social and economic policy.55 This system operated with little opposition until the late 1970s, when the contemporary SPÖ-led government enacted a set of social and political reforms. A number of corruption scandals came to light, stirring public outcry against Proporz.56 At the same, the SPÖ attempted to weaken the ÖVP by supporting the FPÖ, which was a weak, relatively moderate party at the time.57

This tactic backfired. Participating in government, even marginally, legitimized the FPÖ on the local and national stage.58 When Jörg Haider assumed the party leadership in 1986, he recognized the developing opportunity structures. Working almost unilaterally, he completely transformed the FPÖ in terms of ideology, target voter base, personnel, etc. in order to appeal to the changing concerns of the Austrian people. At the time, the primary concerns were the increased migration and threats to economic stability that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain.59 By directly addressing these concerns and attacking the SDP and ÖVP, Haider established the FPÖ as the only “real” alternative. Electoral support skyrocketed, rising from approximately 5% in 1986 to 16.6% in 1990 and 26.9% in 1999.60 The combination of remarkable leadership, economic uncertainty, migratory pressures, and the weakening of the cartel party secured the FPÖ its electoral breakthrough in the early 1990s.

These conditions took longer to form in Germany. The German postwar political system, much like its counterpart in Austria, was dominated by an elite consensus between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and, to a certain extent, the Free Democratic Party (FDP).61 Unlike in Austria, however, this consensus was reinforced institutionally through the Constitutional Court. This is not to say that Germany has been free of off-the-table negotiations; however, formal structures and regulations have played a key role in contributing to the dominance of these parties. As detailed before, the Court has the power to outlaw any organization, movement, or political party it deems to be too close to Nazism. Though several far-right parties have existed with varying levels,62 the vigilance of the Court has proved to be a significant impediment to them gaining power or public support.63

The AfD could achieve electoral success due to a number of factors. The atmosphere for populist discourse had already been established a few years prior due to the “Sarrazin debate.” In 2010, Sarrazin, a SPD politician, wrote Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany does away with itself”), a book that sharply criticized immigration and integration policies adopted under the Merkel government. The book attracted significant attention in political and public spheres, sparking a national debate that paved the way for right-wing populist discourse.64 Although the AfD adopted some populist rhetoric,65 it evaded censure from the Court because it did not introduce itself as a far-right party; in fact, during its early stages, it aggressively dissociated itself from National Socialism.66 Instead, the founders presented it as a single-issue party focused on the Eurozone crisis. Specifically, the AfD criticized the policies adopted by the government in the crisis and called for an exit from the Euro.67

During the 2013 elections, the three mainstream parties as well as the left-wing liberal Green Party skirted around the crisis, either supporting the current policies or completely ignoring it in their campaign platforms. The AfD therefore had the opportunity to fill this gap in the discourse, characterizing itself as the only real alternative. This attracted the attention of voters from both sides of the political spectrum who were disgruntled with the policies of the current government, allowing for a breakthrough.68 Due to the institutional safeguards against far-right movements, the AfD could attract a notable amount of support by initially classifying itself as a critical, but not extremist party.

In summary, the dominance of cartel parties in both postwar Austria and Germany set the foundations for an anti-establishment backlash. As the elite consensus between the mainstream parties of the center-right and the center-left began to erode, alternative viewpoints, voiced most notably by populist parties and thinkers, came to light. This erosion culminated earlier in Austria than it did in Germany: the Proporz system collapsed in the late 1970s, while the Sarrazin debate only began in 2010. This discrepancy lends support to my hypothesis, as the FPÖ had the opportunity to challenge the mainstream parties and be taken seriously earlier than any far-right party did in Germany.

Explanation 3: Changes in Social and Political Cleavages

Austria touts a long history of cultural protectionism, beginning arguably around the end of WWII. Its desperation to dissociate itself from Germany as well as its geographic position between Western Europe and the Iron Curtain afforded it a welcomed and, to a certain degree, self-imposed isolation. The permanent neutrality clause in its constitution, which had been demanded by the Allied powers, further contributed to this isolation.69 This exclusionary sentiment fostered stark opposition to immigration as well as a healthy sense of Euroscepticism. It is interesting to note that immigration only became a salient issue following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As the Iron Curtain hastened towards collapse, fears of an influx of poor migrants from the former Communist bloc grew.70 A few years later, the Yugoslav wars heightened these fears, as refugees began to arrive in increasing numbers.71 With regards to the European question, Austria has consistently ranked amongst the most hesitant towards deeper integration.72

In terms of the socio-economic dimension, Austria has long tended towards economic protectionism. In the Proporz system, major corporations, labor unions, and other economic powerhouses cooperated heavily with the mainstream political parties. Private, under-the-table negotiations ensured that their interests would be represented by government policies, which resulted in a stable economy characterized by heavy government intervention.73 Even after Proporz fell apart, the Austrian public maintained their favor for a regulated economy and welfare state.74 On a related note, support for increased economic integration with other European states also remained high, as indicated by the minimal opposition to Austria joining the European Free Trade Association in the 1960s and the European Economic Community in the 1980s.75 Although the specifics of their positions varied, political parties across the spectrum – including those in the center and those on the fringes – reflected these attitudes, supporting economically conservative policies.76

With these trends in mind, it is hardly a surprise that, in their analysis of the effect of globalization on the structure of the political space, Kriesi et al. determine that while the socio-economic dimension lost salience throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the cultural dimension did the opposite. Furthermore, their data indicates that the cultural dimension did indeed shift from an opposition between cultural liberalism and a restrictive budgetary policy in the 1970s to one between cultural liberalism and immigration beginning in the 1990s. On the other hand, the opposition structure for the socio-economic dimension remained characterized by an antagonism between support for a welfare state and support for economic liberalism throughout this period.77

This provided an ideal opportunity structure for Haider’s FPÖ, which arose as the primary voice of cultural protectionism. Its infamous “Austria First” slogan, xenophobic rhetoric, and demands for more restrictive immigration and asylum policies are but a few examples of their cultural protectionist approach.78 Furthermore, the FPÖ called for the maintenance of a strong welfare state, mirroring the attitudes of the majority of the electorate. Interestingly, the FPÖ did not only attract blue-collar workers, who are typically considered the archetypal losers of globalization, but also members of the middle class, especially during the late 1980s and early 1990s.79 This can be explained by Austria’s extended and extraordinary isolation. Being so accustomed to the status quo afforded by this isolationism, Austria was especially ill-equipped for the sudden impact of globalization. Like the losers, groups that would typically be considered members of the winners were unprepared for the sudden change in the status quo. However, as the reality of integration outside national borders set in, a clearer rift formed between the winners and losers, as reflected by the decreasing levels of support for the FPÖ amongst middle class voters beginning in the mid- to late-1990s.80

The German case is noticeably different. Unlike Austria and even other Western European countries, the socio-economic dimension has remained consistently salient in Germany. In fact, in the six countries analyzed by Kriesi et al., economic issues lost salience in every country except for Germany from the 1970s through the early 2000s.81 The fall of the Berlin Wall and unification explains this trend in part, as the country struggled to consolidate the differing levels of industrialization, wealth, and unemployment.82 It is also worth noting the German economy – both in the West and East – has been integrated into markets outside of its national borders since WWII. Accordingly, the German electorate does not overwhelmingly favor a strong welfare state or economic liberalism, and political parties assume economic positions across the spectrum.83

The cultural dimension is perhaps more interesting. The analysis performed by Kriesi et al. indicates that, in the 1970s, this dimension was characterized by an opposition between support for cultural liberalism on one hand and support for a restrictive budgetary policy and a strong army on the other. At first glance, this appears similar to the Austrian case;84 however, the data indicates that these two poles are insignificantly related to one another. It can therefore be concluded that the cultural dimension had very little relevance in Germany at this time. This did indeed change throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. As in Austria, the cultural dimension shifted towards the cultural liberalism-immigration opposition structure. That said, relative to parties in the other five countries evaluated, German parties have only cautiously flirted with anti-immigration sentiment.85

Considering these trends, it is logical that the AfD first came to prominence as a single-issue party focused on the Eurozone crisis, an economic issue. The higher salience of the socio-dimension suggests that the party’s calls for economic protectionism attracted more positive attention and support than calls for cultural protectionism would. Interestingly, the middle class and academics, typical winners of globalization, composed most of the supporters for the AfD just prior to the 2013 elections.86 However, the party’s shift towards increasingly culturally protectionist policies following the 2013 elections, attracted a different voter base. In the 2014 European Parliament and regional elections, there is a notable correlation between ultimate voters for the AfD and the typical losers of globalization in these elections.87 This suggests that the cultural dimension is rising in salience in German politics, implying that the winner-loser structural divide is as well.

The restructuring of the political space from the traditional left-right spectrum to one between the winners and losers of globalization can be seen in Austria and Germany. In both countries, the cultural dimension has been transformed into an opposition structure between cultural liberalism and restrictive immigration policies. This a relatively new phenomenon in Germany, which has historically focused more on the socio-economic dimension. Austria, on the other hand, has historically tended towards protectionist policies, both in the socio-economic and cultural dimension, allowing the FPÖ the opportunity to rise in power before a similar party could in Germany.


As evidenced in the preceding section, each of my proposed explanations is valid to some degree. In this section, I seek to compare these explanations in order to see which is (or are) the most significant. I will begin with my first explanation, the differences in electoral systems. Since Austria has a more proportional system than Germany, it seems logical to conclude that extremist parties would fare better in this atmosphere. Indeed, an ample number of empirical studies provide tentative support for Duverger’s hypothesis: electoral systems closer to pure PR tend to produce more parties than systems that are more majoritarian.88 Furthermore, analyses indicate that more proportional systems tend to support parties with a larger ideological range.89 However, this does not mean that extremist parties actually fare better in these systems. As Carter’s thorough comparison of far-right party success in different electoral systems indicates, these parties have had starkly different levels of success in countries that employ strikingly similar electoral systems. Even in PR systems that use the same seat allocation formulae have had vastly different experiences.90 Therefore, I conclude that this explanation, though worth noting, holds relatively little weight.

My second explanation appears more promising. This explanation provides a particularly interesting lens for analysis, as the situation in both countries is strikingly similar. As explained above, both Austria and Germany were dominated by cartel parties – composed of a more conservative yet centrist Christian Democratic party and a more liberal yet centrist Social Democratic party – in the postwar period. The Proporz system in Austria was perhaps a more extreme version than the consensus in Germany, as it included powerful actors outside the political sphere. Nevertheless, these systems provided strong foundations for anti-establishment backlash. It is important to note that although this system has more or less collapsed in Austria, it still exists in Germany. The CDU, though under an increasing amount of pressure, is indeed still in power, and likely may stay there. With this in mind, I conclude that, although this explanation holds more weight than the previous one, it still is not the best of the three.

This leaves the third explanation, which deals with globalization and the development of new social and political cleavages. I find this explanation the most interesting, as both Austria and Germany have taken very different paths, yet ended in similar places. Austria has traditionally tended towards culturally and economically protectionist policies. The sudden dissolution of the status quo following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain shook the country, leading to increasing support for policies favoring the losers of globalization. Germany, on the contrary, has historically had a more cosmopolitan approach; indeed, cultural protectionism had low salience throughout much of the postwar period. However, recent challenges, notably the Eurozone crisis, increasing immigration, and the influx of refugees, has led the cultural dimension to rise in salience. As a result, a far-right party finally had the opportunity to rise to prominence. With this in mind, I argue that this explanation is the most significant.


This paper sought out to determine the primary causes for the thirty or so year gap between the rise of the FPÖ, the first prominent right-wing populist party in Austria, and the AfD, one of the first right-wing populist parties in Germany with the potential to enter the government. I proposed three potential explanations: 1) differences in electoral systems, 2) a lag in the timing of the electoral breakthrough of each of the parties, and 3) the development of new political and social cleavages. Through a qualitative analysis, I concluded that of these three hypotheses, the third best accounts for this trend.

It is important to note that the analysis presented here is limited in scope. For results that would be easier to compare over time and to other countries, further research should pursue quantitative analyses of each of my hypotheses. One possible method of analysis for the third explanation is a comparison of public opinion data concerning immigration, cultural liberalization, and economic liberalization for both of the countries. Eurobarometer, the World Values Survey, and the European Social Survey are possible sources of data. A repetition of Kriesi et al.’s methodology for determining the impact of globalization with more recent data could also prove valuable.

Recent changes in the political atmosphere of Germany and Austria may also have a profound impact on the information presented here. The loss of support for the CDU and, more markedly, the SPD in regional elections in the German states of Bavaria and Hesse as well as the increase of support for the AfD indicate that the German political landscape is changing dramatically.91 Merkel’s decision to step down from the chancellorship signals that a new era is likely to come. Furthermore, the fact that the FPÖ is currently in a ruling coalition with the ÖVP will impact how the FPÖ is perceived by the Austrian electorate, for voters will now be able to see how the party performs in a governing position.92 These developments indicate that the AfD and the FPÖ will continue to be important players in both the internal political field of their respective countries as well as the European one.


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Endnotes 1 Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist.” 2 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 40; Marchart, “AUSTRIFYING EUROPE,” 809–10. 3 See Arzheimer, “The AfD”; Decker, “The “Alternative for Germany”; Franzmann, “Calling the Ghost of Populism”; Gebhardt, “Eine „Partei neuen Typs"? Die Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) vor den Bundestagswahlen.”; Schmitt-Beck, “The ‘Alternative Für Deutschland in the Electorate.’” 4 Müller, “Austria.” 5 Schellenberg, “Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in Germany: Developments and Enabling Structures,” 35; Bornschier, Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right, 172. 6 Schellenberg, “Developments within the Radical Right in Germany: Discourses, Attitudes and Actors,” 155. 7 Howard, “Can Populism Be Suppressed in a Democracy?,” 23. 8 Schellenberg, “Developments within the Radical Right in Germany: Discourses, Attitudes and Actors,” 155–56. 9 Art, “Reacting to the Radical Right,” 338. 10 Schellenberg, “Developments within the Radical Right in Germany: Discourses, Attitudes and Actors,” 155; Bornschier, Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right, 174. 11 Arzheimer, “The AfD,” 551. 12 Müller, “Austria.” 13 Müller; Marchart, “AUSTRIFYING EUROPE,” 813. 14 Müller, “Austria.” 15 Betz, “Exclusionary Populism in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland,” 408. 16 Howard, “Can Populism Be Suppressed in a Democracy?,” 23–24. 17 Calvo, “The Competitive Road to Proportional Representation,” 254. 18 Norris, “Choosing Electoral Systems,” 299–301. 19 Norris, 303. 20 Carter, “Proportional Representation and the Fortunes of Right-Wing Extremist Parties,” 128–31. 21 Massicotte and Blais, “Mixed Electoral Systems,” 345. 22 Deutscher Bundestag, “Election of Members and the Allocation of Seats.” 23 Duverger, Political Parties, 217. 24 Duverger, 239. 25 Norris, “Choosing Electoral Systems,” 301. 26 Cho, “Voting Equilibria Under Proportional Representation,” 281. 27 Carter, “Proportional Representation and the Fortunes of Right-Wing Extremist Parties,” 125. 28 Schain, “The Extreme-Right and Immigration Policy-Making,” 271. 29 Schain, 271. 30 Goodwyn, Democratic Promise. 31 Howard, “Can Populism Be Suppressed in a Democracy?,” 21. 32 Katz and Mair, “Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy,” 5. 33 Katz and Mair, 15–20. 34 Katz and Mair, 24. 35 Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 922. 36 Rokkan and Flora, Staat, Nation und Demokratie in Europa. 37 Dalton, Farrell, and McAllister, Political Parties and Democratic Linkage, 85. 38 Caramani, The Nationalization of Politics, 292. 39 DeAngelis, “A Rising Tide for Jean-Marie, Jorg, & Pauline?,” 83. 40 Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 922. 41 Kriesi et al., 922. 42 Kriesi et al., 922–24. 43 Kriesi et al., 924, 928–29, 951. 44 Kitschelt and McGann, The Radical Right in Western Europe, 15. 45 Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 927–28. 46 Kriesi et al., 928. 47 Kriesi et al., 926–29, 950. 48 A.K., “How Does Germany’s Electoral System Work?” 49 Deutscher Bundestag, “Election of Members and the Allocation of Seats.” 50 For a thorough explanation of the calculations and the two-tier system, see Deutscher Bundestag (2013). 51 Deutscher Bundestag; A.K., “How Does Germany’s Electoral System Work?” 52 Österreichisches Parlament, “National Council Elections”; “Austria: Electoral System.” 53 For a thorough explanation of these calculations and the three-tier system, see Österreichisches Parlament (2015) and “Austria: Electoral System” (1993). 54 Howard, “Can Populism Be Suppressed in a Democracy?,” 23; Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 44. 55 Marchart, “AUSTRIFYING EUROPE,” 813. 56 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 44–45. 57 Howard, “Can Populism Be Suppressed in a Democracy?,” 24. 58 Howard, 24. 59 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 42. 60 Howard, “Can Populism Be Suppressed in a Democracy?,” 24. 61 Weldon and Schmitt, “European Integration and Party Competition in German Federal Elections,” 54–55. 62 Decker, “The “Alternative for Germany,” 2. 63 Howard, “Can Populism Be Suppressed in a Democracy?,” 23. 64 Decker, “The “Alternative for Germany,” 4. 65 Franzmann, “Calling the Ghost of Populism,” 473–76. 66 Salzborn, “Renaissance of the New Right in Germany?,” 52. 67 Decker, “The “Alternative for Germany,” 2; Schmitt-Beck, “The ‘Alternative Für Deutschland in the Electorate,’” 125. 68 Schmitt-Beck, “The ‘Alternative Für Deutschland in the Electorate,’” 126, 142. 69 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 40; Fallend, “Euroscepticism in Austrian Political Parties: Ideologically Rooted or Strategically Motivated?,” 205. 70 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 40; Art, “Reacting to the Radical Right,” 334. 71 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 46. 72 Fallend, “Euroscepticism in Austrian Political Parties: Ideologically Rooted or Strategically Motivated?,” 205–7. 73 Marchart, “AUSTRIFYING EUROPE,” 813. 74 Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 940. 75 Fallend, “Euroscepticism in Austrian Political Parties: Ideologically Rooted or Strategically Motivated?,” 205. 76 Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 940. 77 Kriesi et al., 940–41. 78 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 53; Minkenberg, The Radical Right in Europe, 33–34. 79 Heinisch, “Right-Wing Populism in Austria,” 43. 80 Heinisch, 43. 81 Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 937. 82 Lees, “The Limits of Party-Based Euroscepticism in Germany,” 16. 83 Lees, 16; Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 938–39. 84 Due to Austria’s permanent neutrality, military issues have little to relevance there. 85 Kriesi et al., “Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space,” 938–48. 86 Gebhardt, “Eine „Partei neuen Typs"? Die Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) vor den Bundestagswahlen.,” 87; Schmitt-Beck, “The ‘Alternative Für Deutschland in the Electorate,’” 136. 87 Schmitt-Beck, “The ‘Alternative Für Deutschland in the Electorate,’” 136–45. 88 Norris, “Choosing Electoral Systems,” 306. 89 Dow, “Party-System Extremism in Majoritarian and Proportional Electoral Systems,” 357. 90 Carter, “Proportional Representation and the Fortunes of Right-Wing Extremist Parties,” 134–35. 91 Connolly and Blond, “Bavaria Election”; Eddy, “Germany Election in Hesse Deals Another Setback to Merkel.” 92 Shuster, “Austria’s Young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz Is Bringing the Far-Right Into the Mainstream.”

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