OPINION: Austria’s vaccine mandate is politically high-risk with limited benefits

Austria has approved its controversial vaccine mandate but it comes with much risk for the government and unclear benefits for the country, argues Marcus How.

Demonstrators wave Austrian flags during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party FPOe
In this file photo taken on November 20, 2021 demonstrators wave Austrian flags during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party FPOe against the measures taken to curb the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, at Heldenplatz square in front of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP)

On February 4th, President Alexander Van der Bellen signed the legislation governing the mandatory vaccination programme, which accordingly entered into force.

Under the legislation, unvaccinated individuals who are over the age of 18 and resident in Austria on either a primary or secondary basis will enjoy a grace period until 16 March, whereupon the police will begin spot checks to determine vaccination status. Fines of up to €600 are possible, which may rise to €3,600 in the event of non-compliance.

The programme is a flagship policy of the coalition government between the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and centre-left Greens. It was devised in the autumn, imposed in response to a surge in infections from the Delta variant of COVID-19, which was aggravated by the relatively low level of vaccination at the time. It was supported by a lockdown for the unvaccinated, which is now being lifted.

Fragile consensus

Politically, the programme is high-risk. Social polarisation is already at high levels, perpetuated by the previously bellicose government rhetoric against the unvaccinated, who the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and anti-vaccination list People Freedom Fundamental Rights (MFG) are attempting to champion. 

Neither party is especially credible, with the FPÖ wavering over the radical course its leader, Herbert Kickl, has adopted. MFG is a single-issue party that would be unlikely to survive a legislative term, assuming it secures parliamentary representation at all. Yet polls indicate that the FPÖ and MFG enjoy the combined support of a quarter of the electorate. 

EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

Just as Austria’s mandatory vaccine programme is unprecedented in Europe, so too is the level to which the anti-vaccine movement is politically organised. This reflects the longer-term trends of social polarisation in Austria, which has its origins in the 1980s. The anti-vaccine movement is another manifestation of culture wars and conspiratorial thinking.

However, such thinking exists along a spectrum and is not the sole domain of populists and the far-right. According to recent polls it extends into the political centre, with a narrow majority of respondents emerging that is either opposed to the programme or believing that it should be delayed. This is not reflected by the parliamentary landscape, where four of the five parties represented voted in favour. 

Limited upside

The electoral impact is already being felt – and the ÖVP is particularly exposed. Nationally, pandemic management is but one part of the story, a potent ingredient in a toxic cocktail that is corroding the party. 

In autumn 2021, the ÖVP underperformed in the regional elections in Upper Austria, one of its strongholds – while the insurgent MFG took up a small chunk of the vote. Last week, in the local elections in Waidhofen an der Ybbs – another ÖVP bastion deep in Lower Austria – the absolute majority of the ÖVP collapsed, with MFG winning 17% of the vote.

These are dark clouds that may herald deepening disaster for the ÖVP. The region of Tirol is set to hold local elections at the end of February, which are looking ominous for the ÖVP.  

Meanwhile, Lower Austria is set to hold regional elections no later than January 2023. The region is the jewel in the crown of the ÖVP, the strongest of the pillars upon which the national party rests. Polls are currently indicating that Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner will preside over the loss of the party’s absolute majority in the region, its last nationally, largely to the benefit of MFG. 

Such a result would come as a severe blow to the morale of a party that is already facing an uncertain future. Following the resignation of former chancellor and party leader Sebastian Kurz from politics in December, the ÖVP remains directionless. Kurz’s successor, Karl Nehammer, was assigned by ÖVP grandees to steady the ship, whereupon he signalled an openness to dialogue with stakeholders largely shunned by his predecessor – while doubling down on law and order. 

Last roll of the dice?

The mandatory vaccination programme is part of this agenda. Nehammer is banking on increasing the vaccination rate in order to guard against future variants that may emerge, rather than Omicron per se . Yet there is every possibility that it will flash in the pan. 

First, 72 percent of the population have received at least two jabs, with a further 3 percent pending. Children under the age of five may not be vaccinated and comprise 5 percent of the population. That leaves some 20 percent of the population, a large share of which is either under the age of 18 or subject to exemption from the programme. The remaining share will be difficult to convince, not least owing to their increasing militancy. 

The government is not helping this situation by sending mixed signals, namely through relaxing restrictions while the Omicron wave has barely begun to crest. Such ambivalence does not act as an incentive, especially amid declarations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the end of the pandemic in Europe is in sight.

Second, it is unclear whether the legislation will survive the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court (VfGH). A legal challenge is certain to be filed, with the VfGH typically issuing rulings within four months. If this backfires, the ÖVP and Greens will face further questions over their competence in addressing the pandemic. 

This is playing out against a backdrop of tense relations between the ÖVP and Greens. In the coming weeks, a parliamentary committee of inquiry will be established to probe suspected corruption by the ÖVP. Such allegations already led to the resignation of Sebastian Kurz. 

The Greens and particularly the ÖVP are not in a strong position to fight new elections. As the ÖVP wobbles, as further investigations mount, holding the line will prove challenging. 

While the ÖVP may face heavy electoral losses, the polls indicate that the winnings for the other parties will be modest at best. This underscores the sombre truth: that the Austrian electorate are weary, disaffected and apathetic. 

Marcus How is the Head of Analysis at VE Insight, a political risk consultancy based in Vienna

Member comments

  1. Meanwhile across the ocean in Canada Truckers are besieging Ottawa against the vaccine mandate over there.

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EXPLAINED: Why has Zelensky’s speech to the Austrian parliament caused so much controversy?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will make a video appearance in the Austrian parliament on Thursday - but his presence has already sparked criticism and protests. Why?

EXPLAINED: Why has Zelensky's speech to the Austrian parliament caused so much controversy?

Ukrainian president Zelensky will speak in the Austrian parliament on Thursday via video link, a virtual appearance planned for a year ago but failed to happen due to strong opposition in Austria.

The criticism comes mainly from the far-right party FPÖ, which sees an invitation to Zelensky as an “attack on Austrian neutrality”, according to party leader Herbert Kickl, who called for a “liberal protest” against the appearance on Thursday.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

Kickl said the virtual speech was “another disruptive fire against our everlasting neutrality”. In a press release, he added: “Even though we condemn the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine: Austria is constitutionally a neutral state, perpetual neutrality is a cornerstone of our self-image, and the speech of a representative of a belligerent party in the heart of our democracy is an absolute taboo”.

The far-right leader said Austria’s perpetual neutrality was a “unique domestic and foreign policy success story”.

“We Freedom Party members are the only ones who vehemently defend this guarantor of Austria’s peace and security in the interests of our own people, while the masses of ÖVP, Greens, SPÖ and NEOS, which have merged into a single party, are more or less openly putting our perpetual neutrality under constant fire.”

READ ALSO: Four ways Austria has changed after one year of war in Ukraine

Kickl’s statements align with the party’s strategy of setting it aside from other political institutions in Austria. In several topics, far-right leaders have tried to position themselves as the “only ones” to “vehemently guarantee” something – be it Austria’s neutrality or its borders.

They’ve also gained popularity by calling for protests, particularly against the Covid-19 measures such as lockdowns and a vaccine mandate in Austria. Now, Kickl said he would call a “Freedom Party protest” against the speech. However, he didn’t specify the form that such a protest would take.

Austria neutrality

Austria’s decades-old (and constitutionally enshrined) neutrality was tested as Russia invaded its neighbour. Many were left wondering: what does it mean, really, to be neutral? And should Austria continue to be a neutral country?

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria’s neutrality

On several occasions, chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) has said that Austria’s neutrality is not up for debate. The country finally seems to have reached a new type of neutrality: a military, albeit not a “political” one. Austria has decided to support Ukraine in words and by sending supplies – no arms or tanks, but health assistance.

However, the country’s neutrality and ties to Russia – both economic and political – have put it in the spotlight for international criticism since the Ukraine war.

The Russian war has forced Austrian politicians to come to terms with the country’s long history of close ties with corrupt Russian politics and oligarchs. Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer was also one of the few western political leaders to meet with Putin after the invasion – and his trip to Moscow was heavily criticised.

READ ALSO: UPDATE: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

The neutral country has also had to deal with other awkward moments. Most recently, it allowed sanctioned Russian delegates to come to Vienna for an OSCE meeting. Austria claimed that it couldn’t forbid members from coming to the meeting and acted according to the organisation’s rules headquartered in the capital. Still, the arrival of the Russian delegates led to protests and the Ukrainian representatives boycotting the event.