Austria: Did ‘Red Vienna’ really stay red?

What the Vienna elections show

The 11 October elections in the Austrian capital Vienna received international attention. After the electoral successes of the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the federal states of Burgenland and Upper Austria earlier this year, the question was asked, would “Red Vienna”, the stronghold of the Social Democratic party (SPÖ) also fall to the FPÖ?

Opinion polls before the election showed a head-to-head race and both the SPÖ and the FPÖ supported this view. They created an atmosphere of a “battle of Vienna”. This proved to be fiction. With the votes counted, the SPÖ was nearly 9 percentage points ahead, winning 39.59%. The FPÖ, gaining 5.02 percentage points since 2010, got 30.79%, less than in all the opinion polls. But the feeling of success or relief that many now have is dangerous. Back in 2010 in Wels, one of the major towns in Upper Austria, the FPÖ was nearly as strong as the SPÖ. Then many demanded support for the SPÖ mayoral candidate in order to prevent the FPÖ from coming into power. We warned that if no change took place in the SPÖ’s politics, if no new left fighting alternative was built, then “in five years’ time there will be a FPÖ mayor”. And, unfortunately, we were right. On the same day that the elections in Vienna took place, in Wels a FPÖ candidate became mayor, with 62.97 % of the vote. The same could happen in Vienna in five years.

An election overshadowed by the asylum crisis?

Most commentators had an easy answer: the asylum and refugee crisis is the reason for the successes of the FPÖ. It is true, that the government turned out to be the best election campaigner for the FPÖ because they created a picture of an unstoppable wave of refugees, that there were ‘just too many for us to deal with’. But this was made up. The number of refugees, at this stage, is less than in previous occasions (after the 1956 Hungarian uprising or the Balkan wars of the 1990s). Most of the refugees do not even stay in Austria, but only pass through to Germany.

There are no shortages that could explain the completely overcrowded refugee camps, people sleeping on the ground, women giving birth without a doctor and not enough food to go around. All of this is happening because the politicians responsible do too little and too late. They argued that out getting funds to help refugees from elsewhere, through yet more cuts.

The means there is fear about what the future will bring. Surveys show that 76% of those who see their quality of life dropping voted for the FPÖ. But it is completely wrong to think that “the refugee crisis” was the sole reason for the growth of the FPÖ. This is because behind this there is a housing crisis, growing unemployment and increasing poverty. These are the real reasons for HC Strache and his FPÖ to get stronger, as they are the only established party which actually takes these problems up.

But, on the other side, is the wave of solidarity, the thousands that help refugees, the tens and hundreds of thousands that demonstrate in solidarity with refugees. Those were the base of support for the nearly 40% the SPÖ vote (and the reason it only lost 4.75%). The SPÖ Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl presented his party as the “humanists”. The Greens and the media argued the same way. Those who would think about voting the FPÖ were portrayed as racists, inhumane, nasty people. The social problems were ignored and a moral attack was waged on those who are afraid. So the SPÖ kept a strong base of support in middle class areas while in the big working class districts they stood head-to-head with the FPÖ, which won one district in Vienna, a big working class district, for the first time.

Far right’s ’answers’

As no strong left alternative answered these fears, it was only the far right FPÖ who gave “answers”. The SLP stood in one Viennese district, to show what is necessary. We combined the solidarity and help for refugees with demands for “Austrians” and migrants who already live here. We pointed to the billions of the super-rich, to show where the money should come from for help for refugees, as well as for higher wages, a shorter working week, health, education and pensions. And we pointed to the 80,000 flats, which are currently empty in Vienna just because they are used for speculation. Those should be expropriated and given to refugees and local people instead.

The main reason for the strength of the far right is the weakness of the left. Its weakness is not just in numbers but especially politically. Some on the left called for a vote for the SPÖ for “one last time, to prevent Strache”. The logic of ‘lesser-evilism’ might have helped once more on the electoral field. But it does not help to build a political alternative that can really challenge the far right, in the longer term. During huge demonstration and the solidarity concert for refugees, which together brought over 100,000 onto the streets, big parts of the “left” reduced their intervention to cheering and moralist statements. They completely failed to speak about the social problems that are the basis for the FPÖ’s growing support. But the only way to stop the far right is in building a left alternative, a new workers’ party, given what has happened with the SPÖ. This can start with disappointed leftists in the SPÖ (although many will – again and again – stick to the “lesser evil” and wait for the “right timing”), the activists supporting the refugees who see that the SPÖ and the Greens have no answers and, most especially, those who will become active in the coming social and working class protests.

The economic crisis is far from over. The ruling parties delayed their attacks until after the elections, but will now speed up cuts in pensions, health, education as well as attacks on wages and collective bargaining. And the FPÖ is not the party it pretends to be. In praising their newest prominent recruit (an arrogant former conservative Peoples’ Party (ÖVP) district mayor) as the “Maggie Thatcher of Vienna” the FPÖ were unusually honest in showing where they really stand: on the side of the rich, the capitalists and against the working class.

Many people in Vienna could not vote, as they are not Austrian citizens and are not allowed to vote although they live here. The abstention rate was still higher than the vote for the FPÖ. Around 24% of those eligible to vote did not because they said they “had no time”. The others had no party to vote for. This shows that although the FPÖ can partly channel the anger of working class people, there is still a huge political vacuum due to the fact that there is no party for the working class and the poor. And even some of those voting for the FPÖ could be won over to a serious anti-capitalist left alternative. So the different forces that want such a new party, who need such a new party and who are necessary for such a new party, need to stop waiting and have to start taking concrete steps to come together in a democratic, fighting and anti-capitalist force. Only this can stop the far right!

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