Austria: General election sees surprise sees Social Democrats return to power

2,250 vote in Vienna against capitalism

The general elections in Austria, on 1 October, saw the surprising victory of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). After being in opposition since 2000, the SPÖ became the largest party again, with 36.5% of the vote. The reason for this result was the strong demand by big parts of the population to get rid of the ÖVP (People’s Party) Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, who carried out brutal neo-liberalism with Napoleon-like arrogance. The ÖVP’s vote fell from 2,076,833 in 2002 to 1,616,493. Two racist parties – FPÖ and BZÖ – together got just over 15%. The Austrian section of the CWI also stood in these elections, as ‘Socialist LeftParty – List against Capitalism and Racism’.

The ruling ÖVP had an election campaign that claimed everything is wonderful in Austria. Some of their functionaries wore T-Shirts saying, “Non-Nagger” (‘We don’t complain’) making clear that everybody who complains about existing problems is just a “nagger”. But in the last six years the government implemented attacks on pensions, the health service and education. Work was increasingly casualised, women driven back into the home, and youth drive off the universities. This was combined with the influential state TV-company becoming even more then before uncritically pro-government. A huge number of public jobs were given to government stooges or even created for them. The pre-election opinion polls showed a victory for the ÖVP, but obviously the wish to get rid of this government was overwhelming, something that was seen in June 2003 when one million workers held a one day strike against Schüssel’s pension cuts.

SPÖ: A Weak Winner

The evening of 1 October saw a surprised SPÖ chairman when Gusenbauer realised his party was the strongest. But the SPÖ is a weak winner, as it lost 128,500 votes compared with the last election in 2002. Although the SPÖ campaigned with weak slogans (e.g. for “More fairness”), 40% of their voters voted to get rid of Schüssel. The SPÖ’s vote was stable in rural areas but it lost most votes in its traditional working class areas of support. Amongst pensioners the SPÖ was the strongest party – but 75 % of voters under the age of 30 voted for another party. Despite its social rhetoric, we will not see a genuine turn to the left by the SPÖ. Wherever it was in power, during the last years, the SPÖ’s politics were hardly any different from those of the ÖVP. In the Vienna council, where the SPÖ has an absolute majority, it started privatising the entire social service sector. Health, elderly care and the care of the disabled all have to function within the logic of the profit system not need. In Carinthia, the SPÖ went into coalition with the federal state governor, the far-right BZÖ extremist Jörg Haider, showing that the SPÖ has no problem working together with arch right-wingers.

Far-right strengthened

Another surprising result of the elections, was the fact that the new BZÖ party just made it into parliament. The BZÖ was created as a results of a split from the FPÖ by Haider and FPÖ government Ministers in spring 2005. The BZÖ has no real rank-and-file but used a lot of money from government ministries, and from Haider’s governorship in Carinthia, to promote its candidates.

During the election campaign, the actions of the BZÖ confirmed the SLP’s [CWI Austria] analysis. The BZÖ is not a “liberal” split off, as we stated. There was a disgusting race between the BZÖ and the FPÖ about who is more racist. Asylum seekers were generally presented as liars who live in luxury. Both parties argued for deportations. The FPÖ got 11 % in these elections. While this was far less than the 26.9% they won in 1999, it was higher than the 10% they won in 2002, before Haider’s breakaway. After the split in 2005, many commentators declared the FPÖ finished. We explained, at that time, that the split would lead to an even more right turn by the FPÖ, with the fascists inside it getting to the centre of the party. We also explained that far right extremism would not be finished by this split in the FPÖ. We were correct on both points. Today’s FPÖ leadership is made up of men who have no fear of having links with fascists and are open to historical “revisionist” ideas; those who want to re-write history, “relativising” the historic crimes of fascism. The FPÖ uses a mixture of pseudo-social rhetoric and aggressive racism. Combined with the weakness of the left, this is the basis for their electoral success.

In regard to immigration and asylum seekers all the major parties have turned to the right. Instead of speaking about social problems or problems of unemployment, they speak about a “migration problem”. Government representatives blamed school students with a migrant background for being responsible for the bad results of Austrian pupils taking the international Pisa-study. Of course, they did not mention that they are responsible for massive cuts in education. The ÖVP Minister for Inner Affairs misquoted an unscientific study, that claimed 45 % of Muslims in Austria are unwilling to integrate into society. This gave a further boost to the racist and anti-Moslim mood created by the FPÖ. This is the background to the increase in attacks on migrants by right wing and fascist youth.

SLP: Only Alternative to the racists

The Austrian section of the CWI, the SLP, also stood in the elections. Due to extreme bureaucratic and financial barriers put up by the state’s electoral bodies, we were only able to stand in Vienna. We approached the Communist Party (KPÖ) a joint election list, but their only reaction was “You can stand on our open list”. Recently, the KPÖ got good election results in one Austrian federal state, Styria, where they won up to 20% in Austria’s second biggest town, Graz. In this area the KPÖ do social-type work, especially for housing tenants. Their main representative in the region, Ernest Kaltenegger, is regarded as an incorrupt, unprivileged, and therefore, untypical, Austrian politician. The KPÖ thought that they could repeat this electoral success on an Austrian-wide level. But the KPÖ did not do similar work in other parts of Austria, nor did Kaltenegger stand on the KPÖ’s list for the general elections. The KPÖ had two one-hour long programmes on the state TV but did not use them to promote socialist ideas. Their main election slogan was “To give, not to take”, and they did not campaign against the racist FPÖ. The KPÖ gained 20,000 votes, getting 47,578, 1%, in total; but they were far away from the target of getting into the parliament, which some section of the KPÖ leadership aimed for.

The only party in this election that actively organised against the racist rallies of the FPÖ was the Austrian section of the CWI. We stood under the name “Socialist LeftParty – List against capitalism and racism”. It is notable that we had very positive responses to the “against capitalism” part of the slogan. With Austrian youth and older people and people from immigrant background s we organised protests against FPÖ-rallies. The SLP (CWI) produced literature, in seven languages, to practically show our internationalist approach. This was warmly welcomed.

We got 2,257 votes in Vienna in these elections, which is less then the last time we stood in the general elections, in 2002. The difference this time is because the KPÖ got much more press cover than we did. This was not because of the KPÖ’s campaigning work, but due to the coverage the press decides to give to what are formally regarded as the main parties during elections. At the same time some workers thought the KPÖ had a chance of being elected to parliament this time. But if you compare the activity, the clarity of programme, and the socialist approach, the SLP was far more successful than the KPÖ.

Social and industrial battles on agenda

The negotiations for a new government are just starting. The most likely possibility, at the moment, is a grand coalition between the SPÖ and ÖVP. But the ÖVP will ask for an extremely high price for this. It cannot totally be ruled out that there might be an ÖVP-FPÖ-BZÖ coalition government. It is also possible that no government is formed and there will be soon new elections. Whatever government is formed it is clear that government attacks on the living standard of the working class, on health and education, and on immigrants, will continue. It will be quickly clear that the “fairness” the SPÖ promoted during the campaign will not bring relevant benefits for the working class.

Vienna ÖGB conference supports SLP proposals

An important factor in future developments will be the role the ÖGB, the trade union federation, plays. After a major ÖGB financial and political crisis, earlier this year [see previous article on], efforts to change the ÖGB are half-hearted, at best. But the mood amongst the trade union ranks is changing. Just days after the election, a 65% majority at the ÖGB’s Vienna regional conference voted to support a resolution moved by a SLP shop steward, and general election candidate, that called for democratic union decision-making, the annual election of all union officials, for all officials to receive the average wage of the workers they represent, and for a “fighting policy not social partnership; The trade unions must be orientated to their members’ interests and not those of big business”.

The ÖGB leaders’ demands on a new government are very general and no steps are proposed to fight for them. The leaders’ demands in wage negotiations, that just started, are extremely soft, only demanding “an increase” in wages, without even saying that inflation has to be covered. There is anger amongst the union rank-and-file over this. At Austrian Airlines, which is traditionally a competitive workforce, there are currently workplace meetings taking place to discuss and decide about strike measures against the attempts to cut 350 jobs.

The attacks of the incoming government on workers, the unemployed and on young people, will provoke reaction. The trade union bureaucracy has partly lost its authority and, therefore, its grip on the union membership. This increases the possibility for struggles of the working class, struggles that will help prepare the ground for a new workers’ party, with mass support, to contest the next general elections.

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