Austria: Elections see further decline in support for main parties

New neo-liberal parties enter fray but workers need a strong socialist alternative

On Sunday, 29 September, Austria held a general election which, as in many other countries, saw the main, established parties suffer a drop in support and new political formations were elected. The Austrian section of the CWI, the Socialist Left Party (SLP), also stood and got support for its ‘Socialism – not capitalist chaos’ campaign.

The general result reflects the current international trends; the polling turnout dropped with non-voters and those who spoiled their votes totalled more than those who voted. The two main pro-capitalist parties, the bourgeoisified social democrats (SPÖ) and the traditional party of capitalism, the ÖVP, which formed the last government coalition, again lost votes, and they have no idea why. Forty years ago these two parties together won 4,410,000 votes (90.8%), now they got 2,384,000 (50.8%). This year the far-right FPÖ again won over 20 %, while the Greens rose to 12%. However these four main parties of the bourgeois establishment become more and more similar in their programme, slogans, posters and candidates.

Beside these parties, a number of new and smaller organisations stood in this election, more than ever before in the post 1945 Second Republic. The two most interesting from an establishment point of view are ‘Team Stronach’ and the ‘Neos’ party. The first is the project of an Austrian billionaire (Stronach) who bought several MPs from other parties and invested millions of euros in an extremely expensive campaign. The second is a fusion of the (always minor) Liberal Party and a split off from the ÖVP that is strongly supported and partly financed by another Austrian millionaire (Haselsteiner). Both are neo-liberal in their economic programme, the first is more populist (anti-EU, sometimes anti-foreigners), the later purer in its neo-liberal agenda.

Both reflect the understanding of a layer of the ruling class that capitalist democracy is in a deep crisis. Austria has been for some years now embroiled in a never-ending series of corruption scandals. The trust in politicians and political organisations has dropped dramatically. There is now more trust in second-hand car dealers then in politicians. The other reason is the economic crisis. The outgoing government managed to keep the figures of just how hard Austria has been affected relatively out of sight until the election was over. But even before the elections, there were a series of major company crashes and an increase in unemployment and social problems.

Dark cloud

The government tried to paint a rosy picture of how good, compared with Greece, Spain and others, the situation is in Austria and how well they managed the crisis. While this still has an element of truth, it is working less and less, as people compare their own present situation with both that of the ruling elite today and their own position some years ago. On both the popular balance sheet is negative. There is a general feeling of a dark cloud hanging over our heads, people are aware that more of the crisis is yet to come – and this is absolutely true, taken into account the very strong dependence of the Austrian economy on exports and its strong involvement in the volatile financial markets in Eastern Europe.

The combination of disgust about the establishment, the 1%, and the anger about the social situation, is explosive. Sections of the ruling class understand this and try to react. The formation of the two new election lists reflects this attempt to develop a ‘stable, clean and reliable’ partner for capitalism on an electoral plain. But the development of the Team Stronach also shows that these formations are far from stable.

The Team Stronach is run as a one-man ‘team’ where Stronach decides everything. Since election day, when Team Stronach got a result lower than they scored in recent opinion polls (but still 5.7%) party figures have been dropped, replaced, forced to pay back money given to them by the party’s ‘sugar-daddy’ Frank Stronach and there soon might be split offs from party-structures and the departure of some MPs. The other new formation, the Neos, might be more stable, as they are not so much controlled by one egocentric leader. But the Neos got their 5% for the image they present as being something new, not being corrupt and not so hardline with their neoliberal policies. But this formation will support at least some of the new attacks on the living standards of working class people and will lose most of their ‘freshness-factor’.

The first reaction of a lot of people to the election results, that is a turn to the right, is not strictly correct. There was a re-groupment of far right votes, where many who went with former leader, Haider and his split off from the FPÖ (Freedom Party) in 2005 to the BZÖ now came back to the FPÖ. The people who voted for Stronach and Neos – although both are right parties going by their programmes – did not do so because they judged these two as right wing parties. The FPÖ gained some extra votes but mainly higher percentages. They lost ground in a number of places, like in Vienna, by far the biggest city in Austria and a traditional stronghold for the FPÖ. However in one county of Austria, Styria, they were the strongest party. This was on the base of the drastic social cuts that the Styrian regional-government coalition of the SPÖ and ÖVP pushed though in recent years.

FPÖ’s pseudo-social, anti-EU rhetoric

As with many far right parties in other European countries, the FPÖ managed to become more ‘normal’ as the established parties moved to the right, taking on some of the racist propaganda used by the FPÖ. The FPÖ also made gains with their pseudo-social and anti-EU rhetoric. The FPÖ, although still harshly anti-foreigner and involved in a number of mini-scandals because of links of their members to Neo-Nazis, managed to primarily present themselves as a “social” party. They try to present an image of themselves as the successors of the old social democracy and used biblical quotes in the election campaign (“Love thy neighbour – and for us those are the Austrians”).

Although the FPÖ still plays the role of the major protest party to vote for, it also is involved in the corruption scandals of the other parties and is – as well as the Greens – increasingly seen as part of the established parties system. This is reflected in the fact that they only won an extra 3% and lost to Team Stronach and the non-voters. But the FPÖ will not be like other far-right populist formations that just disappear. They are a permanent threat, as they have a conscious and organized core in the party around the far right ‘student leagues’ that keeps the party together including in periods of crisis.

No strong left alternative on offer

There was no strong left alternative on offer during the election. The SLP, the Austrian section of the CWI, has argued for a number of years now that a new workers’ party is needed. We know that especially within the ranks of the social democratic-controlled trade unions the wish for something new is strong, but until now there were no struggles and no figures for this development to crystallize around. The SLP therefore took the initiative to call for a joint left slate as a second best option, but this failed as the Communist Party (KPÖ) was not prepared to join. If such a left list had been developed on the basis of a clear anti-cuts programme, democratic structures and fighting in practice, it could have been a point of attraction for others taking initiatives for left or progressive formations, and for those active in several smaller class struggles that have taken place in the recent period.

But as this did not take place we had several left/progressive formations standing in the election – the KPÖ, the SLP in Vienna, the list “Wandel” (Change) in two counties and also the Pirates. The KPÖ got nearly 50,000 votes, an increase of around 11,000 and went over 1%. In Vienna the left lists (or those seen as left like the Pirates) together came to over 3%. Although the KPÖ became stronger, they had a very weak and general programme and hardly conducted any election campaigning. So the increase in their votes reflected the strong wish for a left voice, not support for the KPÖ as such. The Greens and the Social Democrats had famous “left” MPs in places where they could only be re-elected with a personal vote (so people voted for a party they do not like in order to support a candidate). So, in end, the left votes where split. But taken all together they showed the wish for a left alternative.

SLP stood on socialist ticket

The SLP stood in Vienna, on a clear socialist ticket. The main slogan was “Socialism – not capitalist chaos”. We had 11 central demands related to the 11 central candidates, concentrated on the topics of the economy/crises, social/unemployment, women, migration/asylum and corruption. We distributed more than 15,000 brochures and 2,500 posters, more than ever before in an election campaign. We campaigned not only in Vienna, where we stood candidates, but in several other places in Austria. We stood (although this is formally not possible) one of the asylum seekers with whom we are active with in the recent months’ long asylum seekers’ movement, to make clear that we demand equal rights for all living here.

We had the most lively and loud election campaign ever and got a good response to our slogans. ‘Socialism’ not only differentiated us from all others, but was no barrier for further discussion and was even an attractive issue to raise for many. We got 947 votes in the end – less than in 2008 when we stood on a left slate together with others. Taken into account the increased competition on the electoral field by lists seen as on the left, the result is good. This became clearer in the last days of the campaign and the days afterwards, when a number of people contacted us for further information and expressed a wish to become active.

We do not know yet about the composition of the new government, as the parties are negotiating a coalition, but we know that it will be one of further cuts and attacks on working class people. Therefore our campaign had the aim of bringing workers’ together –teachers are taking protest action, social workers are preparing for their wage-negotiations, asylum seekers and others are facing new attacks – and helping preparations for the coming protests.

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