Austria: Political establishment in turmoil

New ‘Left Project’ alliance plans to contest early general elections

On July 19, 100 people (including former members of the SPÖ, Greens, KPÖ, along with JS and trade union activists) attended a conference in Vienna called by the already existing “LINKSPROJEKT” (“Left Project”) and decided to stand under the name LINKE (LEFT) in the snap general elections called for 28 September. This conference took place against a background of a polarised social situation and a major crisis in the Austrian political establishment. This could be the first potential steps towards a new formation – or pre-formation – of a new workers’ party in Austria.

After the collapse of the short-lived grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative Peoples’ party (ÖVP), the political landscape in Austria is in turmoil. In government, the SPÖ broke all the key election promises they made before January 2007. This resulted in the SPÖ losing 40% of its vote in June’s regional election in Tyrol and generally being on its lowest levels in public opinion polls for a long time.

In addition, people are fed up with rising inflation and cost of living – real wages are below those of 1991 and the lower paid are being hit hardest by price rises. With the looming prospect of economic crisis more companies are laying off workers and closing work places (Siemens, Telekom and others, for example). Sections of big business are dissatisfied with what they call the “Reformstau” (“Reform blockage”) – meaning the government is not carrying out cuts fast enough.

Faced with falling support, the SPÖ appointed a new party leader, Werner Faymann, and made a populist u-turn, using the biggest tabloid newspaper “Die Krone” to come out in favour of a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. This led the Peoples’ party to call it quits and to force new elections.

Social polarisation

As well as the polarised social situation, there is now a major crisis of the political establishment. New election lists and “parties” are popping up from the ground like mushrooms – most of them not serious though or of a right-wing, populist character – with the exception of the LINKE. Such is the social polarisation all parties have to take up the problem of the rising cost of living.

The far right Freedom Party (FPÖ), benefits from the political vacuum and presents itself as ’Soziale Heimatpartei’ (“social homeland party”), and is gaining in polls again (with as much as 20%). In the last general election (October 2006), the FPÖ, weakened by a 2005 internal party split with its former leader, Haider, polled 11%. Today’s growth for the FPÖ, now led by the former neo-Nazi, Heinz-Christian Strache, together with increased activity by small fascist groups represents a dangerous threat.

The 19 July conference was the second national conference of the Left Project – the first one took place on 5 July, two days before the government collapsed, with 70 people attending. Both conferences were attended by a number of activists from the regions (notably Styria, Carinthia, Tyrol, Salzburg and Upper Austria), trade unionists and even activists of the socialist youth (SJ, the youth organisation of the SPÖ). But there were also people present who had not been politically active. Over the last two weeks, the LINKE got a huge response – both in the media, as well as from people contacting both SLP (CWI) members and Left Project activists to give support. After a two-hour debate, the 19 June conference overwhelmingly decided to stand in the elections by 87 to 8 votes.

Potential for Left

The Socialist Left Party (SLP, CWI in Austria) urged the Left Project to stand – we made clear at the first conference, on 5 July, that there has to be an urgent, second, conference once elections were called. We struggled hard to convince others in the preparation body that this conference has to take place early enough to prepare the new formation to be able to stand. SLP members argued the clearest to stand in September’s election.

There is a huge potential for a left challenge that could not be realised otherwise. We made clear that it is worth contesting in the elections, even though the new project has only just started. SLP members argued that the election campaign should be used to build LINKE, to initiate activities and to campaign for higher wages, and against social cuts and racism. An important point is that, for the first time, 16 and 17 year olds have the right to vote in elections.

During the conference we also argued for democratic structures – for a co-ordinating committee to be elected and for regional conferences, as well as for a programme including the following points:

  • A shortening of the working week, a minimum wage, and wages automatically increased with inflation, instead of precarious jobs, rising costs of living and attacks on the unemployed
  • Increase the budget for public services, the health system, public housing and public transport, instead of job cuts, privatisation and social cuts
  • Public childcare and care for the elderly, as well as equal pay for equal work for women
  • Against all forms of privileges for politicians
  • For fighting and democratic unions
  • For a united socialist Europe, instead of the neo-liberal EU of the bosses
  • For a democratically socialist planned economy – a society without exploitation and oppression

Parts of the Left Project (notably the initiators who come from a as Social Forum background) hesitated over whether to stand in these elections, arguing it was too early, that activists could be worn out and that the Left Project could be endangered, if it was not “successful”. But this completely ignored the fact that any result would be a success if the activists of the Left Project” managed to collect the necessary 2,600 legally endorsed signatures to be able to stand. Contesting the September elections would draw together activists and prepare for activity afterwards.

The Communist Party (KPÖ), which had a speaker at the 19 July conference, had already decided to stand independently – and moved their national committee meeting from the 20 July to 19 July, the same day as the Left Project conference. This was seen as a sectarian move, which is consistent with the KPÖ’s approach that they want to ‘control’ the left. The Left Project still called for an alliance with the KPÖ in the Styria region, as the KPÖ are generally regarded as still having genuine roots in the region, as well as their well-known local figure, Ernst Kaltenegger.

A complicating factor for the development of a new workers’ party in Austria is the lack of movements or class struggle since 2003. That could well change soon during this coming autumn’s round of collective bargaining. Pro-big business commentators warn of a potentially explosive situation: with inflation already hitting 4 % in June. The trade unions cannot demand less than 4% – whereas the bosses, fearing the prospect of economic crisis, will do their best to keep wages down. With the Left Project standing in the general elections, this could deepen the crisis of the SPÖ and accelerate the process of the development towards a new workers’ political formation.

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July 2008