The 2023 regional elections in the Austrian state of Salzburg have left the NEOS party, junior partner in a coalition with Conservatives and Greens, facing defeat. Any party preparing for future elections can learn valuable insights from the liberals’ failure to secure a seat in the state legislature. Here are three lessons to be learned:
- Present your own vision: Communicating past achievements as part of the government is not wrong but should not be a priority in the election campaign – politics is not a grateful business after all. Especially junior coalition partners are advised to take this into account, as government projects will more likely be attributed to the senior partner. One of the primary factors contributing to NEOS Salzburg’s loss in the regional elections was the party’s failure to effectively distinguish itself and convey its policies to the electorate. As a junior partner it is vital to present a clear, distinctive vision, ideally carried by a lead candidate who is unafraid to assert themselves, even while being part of the current government.
- Point the finger to where it hurts: More than anything, people want to be heard. Understanding and addressing the concerns of diverse segments of the population is key for any political party. Parties need to conduct thorough research to identify the issues that matter most to different demographics and develop tailored policies and outreach programmes to engage with their target groups effectively. In Salzburg, communists celebrated an unexpected comeback by seizing the issue of housing costs, striking a chord with voters. Polling between 0 and 1% in the past, their reward in 2023 was a share of about 11% of the vote.
- Never underestimate local entrenchment: Effective grassroots mobilisation is essential for building a strong support base and winning elections. NEOS first made it into the regional parliament in 2018 and immediately entered government, leaving no resources for the buildup of sustainable local party structures. Apart from internal disputes that were fought publicly, NEOS Salzburg’s defeat can – in consequence – be partially attributed to insufficient possibilities to mobilise volunteers and supporters to engage in door-to-door campaigns, public events, and other activities that create a direct connection with voters. Parties facing elections should invest more resources in grassroots organising to build a robust and motivated network of supporters.
In conclusion, key takeaways from this defeat include the need for improved communication of distinctiveness and enhanced grassroots mobilisation. Moreover, engaging with diverse voter groups, understanding their concerns, and tailoring policies accordingly will be crucial for building support. While liberals were unable to accomplish this in Salzburg, any defeat can ultimately serve as a valuable catalyst for parties to reevaluate their strategies and emerge stronger in future elections.