Monday 5 June 2023 will go down in Austrian history.
In a stunning turn of events, Hans-Peter Doskozil, the governor of Burgenland and presumed winner of the leadership contest for the Austrian Social Democrats, found himself in second place just two days after being declared the winner of a leadership contest at the party’s congress.
Instead, Andreas Babler, the mayor of Traiskirchen, who had conceded defeat in the run-off, suddenly found himself in first place. Due to a mix-up, the results had been reversed. The fact that the mistake was only discovered because journalist Martin Thür had spotted a missing vote in the final result and raised the matter on Twitter did not help matters.
In a way, the contest ended as it began. There had been chaos and problems from the start.
After months of crossfire from Doskozil, chairwoman Pamela Rendi-Wagner decided to put herself on the ballot against her challenger. The instrument of choice was a formally non-binding but politically important poll of the party’s 148.000 members. Then things quickly went sideways. Following the intervention of a young political intrapreneur, Nikolaus Kowall, the list was opened up to other candidates. Suddenly there were more than 70 candidates in the race, including a giraffe from the local zoo.
Exclusion criteria were negotiated, and the list was again narrowed down, to three candidates: the centrist Rendi-Wagner, Doskozil from the right wing of the party and the left-wing Andreas Babler, a local politician. The subsequent three-way vote produced the “worst possible result”, with all candidates scoring close to ⅓. Doskozil came first, Babler second and Rendi-Wagner third. The only clear result of the vote was that the chairwoman decided to step down.
So it came down to the two remaining candidates. But, as social democratic party pundit Robert Misik wrote in the IPS Journal, the selection process was “somewhat ill-conceived (…): there was no provision for a run-off if no one won an absolute majority or even a clear victory”. Babler had always said he wanted to run if the numbers were close; Doskozil had always said that the winner of the three-way vote should be the sole candidate at the congress, even if he won only with a relative majority.
Once again there was haggling. In the end, it was agreed to hold a run-off at the party congress, with the known results: Doskozil was declared the winner. A few days later he was declared the loser.
What are the lessons for other parties? Five points are important:
Rendi-Wagner, the former chairwoman, played defence from the start, rather than taking the lead. At no point did she seem to be in charge, which made the party look rudderless. Betting on her incumbent bonus and the support of some party heavyweights, she chose not to campaign to convince members and activists that she was indeed the right person to lead the party. This irritated many. Her (eventual) successor campaigned hard and showed the impact that grassroots mobilisation and effective electioneering can have. He was perceived as closer to the people and proved to be an effective leader.
Execution matters. The plan was not good to begin with, but the execution was arguably worse. The botched implementation, which also led to the resignation of senior party officials, was seized upon and ridiculed by the competition (“A party that cannot hold a vote cannot win elections”). It remains to be seen what the voters will make of this. What is clear: parties need to qualify their staff to run participatory processes.
The lack of professionalism is also a consequence of an organisation whose structures and processes are not up to date. Austrian party law does not regulate internal party democracy, unlike in Germany, for example. Some parties do not care much about it, simply because they do not have to. But parties need to realise that effective participation in the 21st century requires transformed organisations and new forms of governance. This requires a strategy and resources.
- Process design
A clearly defined process for the leadership contest is important. As political scientist Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik wrote in Der Standard, “there is no voter will per se – it is determined by the voting system”. Every voting system has its pros and cons. But the biggest problem is when you cannot agree on one. In the case of the SPÖ, the process was constantly renegotiated while it was already underway. That is poisonous. Instead, the process needs to be seamless and fully agreed from the start.
- Digital infrastructure
The shocking reversal of results was blamed on an “Excel error” by an employee. “The ballot papers didn’t match the digitally announced result,” said SPÖ election commissioner Michaela Grubesa. “Due to a technical error in the Excel file, the results were mixed up.” In 2023, there are proven democracy technologies that parties can use for voting and participation. They just need to be applied. You can read more about them on our sister platform here.
On the evening of Monday 5 June, Andreas Babler apologised on behalf of the party for the chaos. If anything, it was a huge missed opportunity. After all, the turnout for the member poll was an astonishing 72 per cent, with almost 110,000 members taking part. Many new people joined the party. For the first time in a long time, there was a genuine debate about the political direction of the party. If only the party had been competent enough to use this to its advantage.
The German Social Democrats have shown how to organise a leadership contest in 2019. Although not without its flaws, the process led to the election of a new male/female co-leadership, an innovation in itself.
Running leadership contests as large-scale participatory processes is no easy task for traditional parties. Get it right and you can reinvigorate the organisation, recruit new members and test new tools. Get it wrong and it can do considerable damage to your party brand.