NEOS in Austria – A new Type of Political Party in Europe?
Armin Reinart, Analyst at Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Regional Office Southeast & East Asia
NEOS – the New Austria (NEOS) emerged as a new party in parliament during the 2013 national elections in Austria and has been on a steady rise since then. They stand out among the political competitors with their new methods and style. NEOS‘ success in a challenging political environment deserves a closer look and may serve as an interesting example for parties and citizens interested in reforming a sort of political deadlock many European countries currently experience.
Elections with a Surprise
Austria is a mountainous country in the center of Europe with nice cities, good food, and a proud history. Centuries as the political centre of first the Holy Roman Empire and later the Empire of Austria-Hungary have contributed to shaping the country into a rather conservative political environment. Yet, two years ago it became one of Europe’s front-runners in terms of political innovation.
When NEOS took home about 5% of the vote in September 2013 and got into Austria’s national parliament, it surprised the public and experts alike. Just few had expected that this new party with its hard to define, somewhat liberal platform, just founded a little more than a year before, would survive in the waters of Austria’s rather conservative to right-wing dominated political landscape. NEOS, an abbreviation for the German wording of “New Austria” stirred- up the walked-out trenches of Austrian parliamentary politics and even increased their voter share a couple of months later during the European elections to astonishing 8,4%.
In Austria’s election system of proportional representation, this electoral victory meant an increase to now a total of six parties in the national parliament. Thus also smaller parties may have a certain influence to shape the political agenda and form coalitions on policy issues. More importantly, the jump into parliament is connected to a certain state-funding, also providing staffers and office space for the parliamentary faction. This is of vital importance for the development of a political party in such a system. It enables a core part of the party to institutionalize, use these new resources to control the government via their parliamentary work, develop own alternative policy approaches as well as engage with media, civil society and the general public, without being dependent on rich individual donors inside and outside the party.
A Challenging Environment
In-depth analysis during the next years may find out to what extent the success of NEOS happened despite or because of the kind of political environment the party faced.
Yet, an apparent challenge was and still is posed by the right-wing conservative on the one side and social-democratic to socialist political traditions on the other side. Austrian politics is known in Europe insofar for having a solid nationalist- conservative block that despises migration and is steadily supported from about one fifth of voters. A bit further to the political center, the ruling conservative party can rely on the comparably strong roots of a conservative and dominant religious Christian-Catholic tradition in the country. On the left are the Social-Democrats with their working class heritage and the Green Party with a strong basis in left progressive circles, deeply rooted in the political landscape. The old parties had made themselves rather comfortable in their political battlements and trenches, each in control or in alliance with a solid share of media, business associations, trade unions and other interest groups. This created an environment where all positions are rather set and conventional new comers have limited or no chance to gain ground.
To understand why the success of the NEOS was possible besides these severe obstacles in the political environment, one has to take a closer look on the party itself.
Two factors actually favored the conditions of the NEOS in this otherwise so innovation-hostile environment. First, the described encrustation of the entire political spectrum left a small yet growing special group of politically interested citizens without a proper political home. This group is mainly consisting of young and middle-aged urban professionals who do not have strong ties to the political establishment and could be roughly categorized as progressive middle-class. This group did neither feel culturally attracted to the existing parties, nor could those parties provide a policy agenda reflecting the hopes and priorities of this societal group. This group of politically frustrated grew even more and across its fringes due to the ongoing stalemate between the two traditionally leading parties in government and their unwillingness to reform themselves and the country. The old parties were not unaware of this increasing political clientele in search for a party to entrust, but seemingly did not feel enough pressure to make decisive effort for these citizens not going beyond more than half-hearted approaches.
A new Type of Party
These conditions provided a small, politically ‘homeless’ target group that nobody else managed to appeal to with a chance it managed to take advantage of. However, the kind of organization that was needed to realize this chance in successfully establishing a new party required a special kind of personnel, methods and political agenda.
The founding fathers and mothers of NEOS were indeed just partly newcomers to politics, partly younger politically active people. Besides a group of young business professionals, the main core of the party in its beginning consisted of people that started their political careers in other parties, but left due to frustration over continuing deadlock. This becomes all the more obvious looking at the party leader, Matthias Strolz, a 41 year old business consultant, who started to gather political experience in leading positions in the youth organization of the conservative party. Overall, the team that worked out the campaign ahead of the 2013 election combined this kind of political experience with professional expertise from the business world, not the least in the field of marketing.
A thing that set the NEOS very much apart from the political competition (and still does) are their innovative methodological approaches. This being said, many parts of these approaches are not actually new. They are partly a transfer of methods from non-political fields, state-of-the-art advertisement and marketing campaigning, from journalism as well from business that was not bought by a party as client to a PR-Company, but developed and implemented within the organization, was a visible difference during the main phase of election campaigning and created interest. Again, having professionals with respective background within their ranks helped a lot. One example is Niko Alm, an MP elected in 2013 and media entrepreneur who is also CEO of the Austrian branch of the Vice Magazine.
Others rather stand for a creative combination of known measures, like having public primary elections to nominate candidates, with the radical application of modern technology. – NEOS primary elections were mainly organized online. This held costs low, especially important for an organization with few resources. It also enabled candidates to campaign for themselves without requiring them to command greater capital. Thus they were able to focus their campaigning on their strength of personality, professional experience and their political ideas. At the same time candidates for elections could mobilize their friends and personal environment to gain the necessary organizational support to increase publicity and strengthen the party as a whole.
This approach is strongly intertwined with the political agenda of NEOS, who want to put an end to closed-door politics and empower citizens to more take part in the political decision making of their country. Campaigning events like “Neos@home”, where party leaders were invited by members to their homes to discuss political issues with friends and neighbors attracted many citizens and can be seen in this context. The linkage between methods and political agenda is also true for the NEOS’ policy of transparency pertaining to party politics as well as state institutions. The party generally tries to push for transparency by going ahead and making their finances public online.
Probably the most surprising new methodological approach for the public and political competitors though was the new positive style of political communication. It contrasted the common style of political debate in Austria in which harsh attacks and denunciation of political opponents are dominant. When attacked by the campaigns of the other parties ahead of the European elections, NEOS reacted with advertisement, thanking the other parties for the contributions that they had made for the country in the past, giving examples like the green party increasing awareness for environment protection. This was followed by a second step, in which the advertisement explained, why NEOS now want to go further.
Finally, the distinct political agenda is the third element in the canon of NEOS’ success. They are also in transcending the usual ideological cleavages between Austrian (and European parties). The party program and agenda resemble some elements which belong to liberal or centrist policy platforms in traditional party politics and fill the gap left by the other Austrian parties. 1 However, neither language nor policy proposals refer strongly to a distinctive ideological school. The party is rather hands-on, with strong scientific foundation and seems to be oriented towards the goals and reforms of “good governance”, including government accountability, modern education, entrepreneurship as well as the mentioned democratic participation and transparency.
NEOS now and the neo-prospects
Since its success in the national and European elections, the NEOS party progressed on their path to consolidate gains and institutionalize its structures. The establishment of an own youth organization was an important step. Here, like in other activities of the party, NEOS’ success bases on professional personnel. A youth organization in which successors can be trained and that can appeal to a young target group with separate and innovative approaches is vital for such a party. Though many challenges lie still ahead, NEOS are already able to effectively push their reform agenda in Austria. A national debate on more school autonomy was successfully initiated and frequent proposals in parliament force the standstill government to react in economic policy. With more electoral victories in the future, this trend will get stronger. However, after concentrating on urban centers, especially the Austrian capital Vienna, the party has to built-up decentralized branches to cater to the local conditions. This will be harder in the countryside were its original target group is much smaller. The other parties have woken up too and seem to be more willing to reform facing the increased political competition.
One conclusion that can be already drawn at this point though is that a small, open-minded, professional and committed group of citizens that get active in politics indeed can be successful and have an actual chance of changing its country’s future with the tools of modern party politics. Many parties in Europe are already taking note. Citizens should too.
 See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/30/world/europe/smaller-parties-gain-in-austrian-vote.html?_r=1.
 See http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-eu-27572494.
 See https://europa.neos.eu/werte/.
 See https://europa.neos.eu/werte/.