Austria: Far Right makes big gains – Left vote squeezed

As economic crisis hits, workers’ movement needs socialist alternative

Austria’s 28 September general election saw both government parties – the Social Democrats (SPÖ), and the People’s Party (ÖVP) – lose massively. The Social Democrats slid from 35 to under 30%, while the centre-right People’s Party fell, from 34%, to a disastrous 26 %. It was a historical low for both of them. The SPÖ lost 234,000 votes to get 1,430,000, in 1996 it won 1,843,000.

But the victors in this election were on the far right. The support for the Freedom Party (FPÖ) rose from 11 to 17.5 %, and the Alliance for Austria’s Future (BZÖ), led by Jörg Haider, who had split off from the FPÖ in 2005, saw their vote jump from 4 to nearly 11%. This gave the far right a combined total of 1,380,000, over 28 % of the vote, 136,000 more than their previous high in 1999, when their result sparked a large anti-FPÖ protest movement.

Despite their poor result, the Social Democrats must be happy with the score, as just months ago they were facing a potential electoral disaster. The fact that the SPÖ did not completely lose out was due to a revival of ‘lesser evilism’, and the left-wing rhetoric of its new leader, Werner Faymann.

Political polarisation

This result is a definite protest vote. Many people were angry with the grand coalition government. There was a real polarisation, 21.2 % of voters stayed at home, almost the same as in 2006. But many former SPÖ and People’s Party voters stayed at home. The only party that more or less stood still were the Greens who, with 510,000 votes, lost only 10,000 compared with two years ago. However, according to a study in the Tyrol area, only 41% of people are ‘pleased’ with the outcome of the elections – an expression of the intense polarisation. There could now be a reaction from a layer of youth against the strong electoral performance of the far right, which came as a shock to many.

In their election campaigns, all parties used populist language, presenting themselves as socially progressive, to adapt to the prevailing mood, which was dominated by concerns about inflation, and the cost of living. There is increasing fear of an unsure future, with jobs at risk and living costs rising.

The far right campaign

The FPÖ, the BZÖ, and the People’s Party were rivalling each other on who was the most racist, and hardest on asylum seekers, trying to cash in on the social situation. The vote for the FPÖ, in most cases, was a protest vote against the government.

Youth, especially16-year-olds, were allowed to vote for the first time, and seem to have voted FPÖ in large numbers. Many 16 year olds had not experienced the FPO in government before. The FPÖ were in government from 2000, until the Haider wing split away in 2005, to form the BZÖ, which remained in government until the 2006 election. While in government, the FPÖ was co-responsible for the big pension cuts in 2003, introducing tuition fees, privatisations etc, and consequently lost electoral support before returning to opposition.

The loss in votes, down 347,000 to 1,270,000, for the People’s Party, in turn showed that their stance of “we have to be honest about the fact that there will have to be cuts” was not attractive to working class people. This result was a decisive rejection of the People’s Party’s record in government, only 6 years ago, it won 2,077,000 votes.

The electoral shift to the right will, and already did, boost the confidence of violent neo-Nazis. During the elections, 150 Nazis turned up at the FPÖ rally in Salzburg, and attacked the left, anti-FPÖ demonstration, with iron bars and baseball bats. Jan Rybak, CWI member, and top candidate of the LINKE (Left) alliance in Salzburg was injured during this attack. In Vienna, neo-Nazis on the FPÖ side tried to provoke the left’s anti-FPÖ demo, which had been organised by the LINKE and the SLP (Sozialistische LinksPartei/Socialist Left Party – CWI in Austria), and the neo-Nazis chanted anti-immigrant slogans.

SPÖ helps FPÖ present itself as ‘social’

At the same time, the SPÖ, worried about losing votes, allowed trade union officials back on their election lists – a tactical manoeuvre to mobilise social democratic trade unionists for their election campaign. Their ’new’ leader, Werner Faymann, who had been a minister in the last government but was now presented as a new figure, tried to move a ‘5 point programme’ in parliament. The 5 points would have included cutting half of the tax on food (VAT) to fight price rises – a proposal that was rejected with the votes of the Greens, the BZÖ and the ÖVP. Tuition fees though, were abolished, with the votes of the SPÖ, FPÖ and Greens; fees were introduced after 2000, by the former People’s Party – FPÖ coalition.

The latter is a late response to pressure put on the SPÖ by the movement against tuition fees in the past. Still, if the SPÖ really meant to take radical action, they would go much further, including scraping the tax on food completely, as well as the tax on rents. Also, tuition fees still have to be paid by non-EU citizens, as well as by students who study for longer than a specified period of time (usually ten semesters) – a compromise demanded by the Freedom Party.

The manoeuvres by the SPÖ helped the FPÖ gain the image of a ‘respectable’ party, and made it easier for SPÖ voters to vote for the FPÖ.

Coalition of the losers?

The SPÖ is arguing that they needed to cooperate with the FPÖ in parliament, because the People’s Party is not willing to implement their demands. However, the FPÖ is much further to the right than it was when in government with the People’s Party. Faymann has excluded the possibility of a coalition with the Freedom Party, but whether or not he lives up to his word remains to be seen. The SPÖ has just accepted, without a word of protest, Martin Graf as the third president of parliament. Graf is a member of the far right Burschenschaft Olympia.

With crisis looming, the SPÖ is now rushing to form a government, preferably with the People’s Party – a potentially unstable government and a ’coalition of the losers’, but still more stable than any other potential coalition or minority government. Which government will be formed, and how soon, is not at all clear. What is clear is that a new grand coalition, in combination with deepening economic crisis, will be a recipe for further growth of the far right, unless the anger of the working class can be channelled, and expressed in support for the left, and unless class struggles lead to a strengthening of the workers’ movement and towards the formation of a new mass workers’ party.

Economic prospects dire

The background to the 5 point programme, which was at the heart of the SPÖ campaign, is that SPÖ was forced to ‘do something’ instead of just making promises. The former SPÖ Chairman, Gusenbauer, became hugely unpopular because he did not keep to his ‘promises’. Still, this does not guarantee that a future government could not take back ‘reform’ measures, or that other cutbacks will not be introduced, at the same time, to finance the 5 point programme, especially considering the economic problems that are beginning to hit Austria.

The SPÖ does not conceive of an alternative to the capitalist system – this is why these measures can only be short term, or accompanied by cuts. After the collapse of Lehmann Bros, in the US, Hannes Androsch, a big business representative and SPÖ advisor, warned about the effects of the crisis in the US on Europe and Austria, at a time when economic growth in Austria is slowing.

Economic growth is projected to slow down to a mere 0.9 % in 2009 (WIFO). It is not clear yet how hard Austrian banks will be hit by the financial crisis. Pro-capitalist commentators are demanding that a government should be formed quickly, to be able to act if the banks need help.

In wage negotiations that are about to start, employers will try to keep wage increases low, in view of the crisis. However, the working class cannot afford wage increases below 4 %, in view of high inflation. In Austrian Airlines, which is supposed to be privatised soon, a conflict, with threats of strike action, is looming around the wage negotiations.

LINKE and other small alliances or parties squeezed

The Election Alliance LINKE (Left), in which CWI members played a leading role, got under 2,000 votes – less votes than the Socialist Left Party (CWI in Austria) had got in the 2006 general elections in Vienna, alone.

This, though, is due to the fact that this was a highly polarised election. Days before the elections, just when it became clear that the far right would make major gains, many who would have voted for the LINKE decided to vote for the Social Democrats, or for the Greens, to prevent a high vote for the far right. This means that the potential of people willing to build and campaign for a new political alternative on the left is much greater than this result would imply.

The Communist Party, which insisted on standing independently of the LINKE, and did not take part in the alliance, also lost votes compared to 2006.

The other small parties were squeezed as well. These included the ‘Liste Dinkhauser’ – a populist split off from the People’s Party in the Tyrol, around Fritz Dinkhauser, which also has ex-members of the FPO, and BZÖ standing on its; the Liberals, which are being sponsored by Hans Peter Haselsteiner, one of the richest men in Austria; Christian fundamentalist anti-abortionists, whose top candidate is an attorney who represented the anti-abortionists in a court case against CWI activist, Claudia Sorger, who was involved in the campaign for women’s right to abortion; and the far-right populist list ’Rettet Österreich’, which organised a nationalist anti-EU demo (in which neo-Nazis also took part), last April. Only the Liberals and Dinkhauser got more than 1%.

Campaigning for a new workers’ party

The LINKE is the only smaller force that genuinely represents the interests of working people and youth, and genuinely calls for the building of a new workers’ party. The LINKE/left project alliance, at this point in time, is still an alliance of existing groups of the left, but it includes individuals that are fed up with the existing parties, and looking to build a political alternative, as well as individuals involved in struggle.

On 30 August, 120 people participated in the LINKE conference and agreed an election programme and a list of candidates. The Sozialistische Linkspartei (CWI in Austria) is an important part of this alliance. SLP member, Sonja Grusch, was top candidate on the LINKE’s list. The SLP is one of the most active groups in the alliance, a driving force behind the programme that was agreed upon, and was at the heart of the election campaign. We explained that it was correct for the alliance to stand, as the campaign was a catalyst for drawing together activists in the discussion about its programme, for meeting new people and preparing for future developments.

On the LINKE’s list of candidates was a Kurdish worker from the Glanzstoff factory, in lower Austria, where SLP and LINKE activists supported the struggle of workers against the closure of Glanzstoff. Also on the list of the LINKE was a former social democratic trade union activist from Styria, as well as former CP members, and ex-Greens. In Upper Austria, contacts were made with postal workers, who supported the LINKE, and took part in campaigning on the street.

Huge effort and success, despite the result

The left project alliance contested this general election in 5 out of 9 regions – the first time a left list, other than the CP’s, has stood in regions outside Vienna. Activists had to collect 2,600 legally-endorsed signatures, which involved getting people to go, with their passports to council offices to sign nomination forms. This undemocratic obstacle to standing in elections in Austria is unique in Europe. We managed to get the necessary 500 in Vienna, 400 in upper Austria, 200 in the Tyrol, 200 in Salzburg, and 100 in Burgenland – that makes at least 1,400 – a huge effort and success. In Styria, only 50 names were missing to reach the necessary 400.

As the economic crisis begins to hit Austria, the election campaign of LINKE focused on the fight for higher wages, to counter rising prices, as well as the struggle against job cuts and workplace closures. Another important point was the fight against racism. We organised a demonstration against the final election rally of the FPÖ, linking the struggle against racism with the struggle against social cuts. We also organised a rally against lay-offs, workplace closures, and, for higher wages, using the campaign to raise the idea of a new workers’ party amongst broader layers of working people and youth. LINKE activists received a warm response on the streets, with people contacting us during signature hunting and the election campaign, asking how we were doing or offering help. We also found that the idea of a new party for working people is something that people genuinely wish for.

Need for a new workers’ party

After the election, Ernest Kaltenegger, Chairman of the CP in Styria, and a well known figure amongst workers in Styria – he is known and respected for not taking any privileges – announced that the CP in Styria strives for a new left ‘platform’, in the style of DIE LINKE in Germany. This is a step forward for the formation of a new left force in Austria, and it reflects that the campaign of the LINKE had an impact. If, and how, the LINKE, and the process of rebuilding the workers’ movement in Austria develop, will depend on the level of class struggles and movements.

The next steps will be a conference of the LINKE on 18 November, alongside activities like those planned for 7 October, the international day of action of the ETUC, to draw together activists, and to build, and further develop the left project. The SLP proposes that the LINKE should campaign for an 8 % increase in the wage negotiations that are about to start. It will also be vital to challenge the far right in terms of winning the hearts, and minds, of workers – and not leaving them to the poisonous lies of the racists.

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October 2008