Austria: Presidential elections re-run

Court order to re-run elections sends shockwaves through establishment

In what the Economist describes as a “Horror movie sequel”, the run-off for the presidential elections in Austria will be held again on 2 October. In the first run-off in May, the Green Party candidate, Van der Bellen, defeated the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, by only 31.000 votes. It seemed that another opportunity had been gained to push back the FPÖ, but now Hofer and the far right have a chance build upon the record vote they scored in May and may even win.

In April’s first round of the presidential election, the SLP (CWI in Austria) supported none of the candidates, because they all represented different parts of the bourgeois establishment. But in the run-off between Van der Bellen and Hofer, we argued, as part of our campaign “Against Hofer, the government and the system of the super-rich”, for a vote against Hofer and a fight against austerity. At the same time we understood that Hofer was wrongly seen by many as the anti-establishment oppositional candidate, while Van der Bellen represented everything big parts of the working class correctly reject. He is elitist, neoliberal, pro-austerity and pro-EU. Van der Bellen was the candidate of the hated establishment. He only won because many people voted for the lesser evil, against the far right menace. 60% of Van der Bellen voters only voted for him to prevent Hofer.

As part of their anti-establishment rhetoric, the FPÖ and the Hofer campaign repeatedly questioned the impartiality of the election process during their election campaign and on the day of the vote, subtly accusing the authorities of manipulating the vote. Even though they admitted defeat at first, they later decided to dispute the outcome of the elections, claiming there had been irregularities in 90 of the 117 electoral districts, especially amongst the postal votes. The case came to the constitutional court, which had to decide if the procedure had been violated and if the elections had to be repeated.

Something rotten

And indeed, the decision of the constitutional court was to hold the run-off between Hofer and Van der Bellen again. This sent shockwaves through the political landscape in Austria. It is the first re-run of a national election in a western advanced capitalist country. Even though there is no sign of manipulation, the one-week trial revealed a number of violations of the electoral process, such as, for example, the premature opening of postal ballots or the counting of votes without supervision.

Nobody was really surprised about the findings of the constitutional court. But the decision reflects a deeper and structural crisis of Austrian capitalist democracy. The roots of this crisis lie in the historical weakness of the Austrian bourgeoisie, especially after the Second World War. While there is of course a constitutional “skeleton”, it is buried underneath a network of cliques and semi-institutionalised practises of class-compromise and collaboration of class factions. For decades, the then reformist (and now completely pro-capitalist) Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) completely dominated every aspect of Austrian politics and the role of institutions like the constitutional court was almost non-existent. Instead, the two parties created their individual spheres of influences within the state, including systemic corruption. This also led to a lazy attitude in bourgeois politics towards formal structures and laws.

In this sense, what is special about the current conjuncture is not the rerun of the elections, but the decision of a party to dispute an electoral result. There is no doubt that if any other election had been disputed in the past, the same irregularities would have been found. In fact, there are two cases, where electoral results had been disputed (but on a much smaller scale) – in 1970 and 1995. In both cases there was a re-run, and in both cases it was the FPÖ that disputed the result. Today, the ÖVP and SPÖ are in a continuous crisis: For the first time, their candidates didn’t even make it to the run-off, a huge collapse in support compared with the past. Back in 1979, when the SPÖ won 51% in a general election, just under 10% of the entire Austrian population were card-carrying SPÖ members. Because of the character of the political system in Austria, this crisis of the former big establishment parties is also reflected in the state machinery. It was, for example, hard in some areas, to find enough supervisors for the elections, because they were traditionally recruited by SPÖ and ÖVP.

During the trial, the often embarrassing details of the handling of the elections were published by influential news outlets and thus further undermining the authority of the Austrian state. A dynamic was set in place, in which continuing “business as usual” became impossible for the constitutional court: “A move away from legal precedence in such a sensitive election would have subjected the court to widespread criticism”, said Michael Enzinger, president of the Vienna bar association. The whole situation reveals the underlying weakness of Austrian capitalism on the political plane.

First as a farce, then as a tragedy?

The constitutional court’s decision was met with laments from the liberal press and petit-bourgeois “left” commentators. Moreover, some of them tried to justify the irregularities, claiming “it has always been this way”. Their indignation only serves the FPÖ, which can present itself as the opposition victim of electoral fraud by the establishment and the “Left”. At the same time, the FPÖ can now act as the defender of the electorate – a very favourable position. The Van der Bellen campaign is likely to be pushed onto the defensive while the FPÖ will gain momentum. A Hofer victory is not impossible – while Marx half-jokingly said that history repeats itself first as a tragedy, then as a farce, we had the farce and are now faced with a potential tragedy.

A further escalation of the refugee crisis in the summer could strengthen the FPÖ, given the lack of a strong left alternative to racism and austerity. Also, the continued austerity and pro-business politics of the government will further alienate working class people from the establishment that Van der Bellen is correctly associated with. On the other hand, there will be again a big polarisation and a mobilisation of those afraid of a far-right president, especially young people, women and migrants. All the polarising factors of the first run-off will be even bigger in this second one. The only alleviating factor is a general mood amongst some layers which are tired of the political charades and annoyed about the rerun. Nevertheless, the rerun might overshadow looming class battles in the autumn, when a new round of collective wage bargaining starts and the capitalists have already announced a brutal offensive.

The election will also take place parallel to the decisions around CETA in the EU-institutions. Van der Bellen, who in the past defended TTIP, will not be seen as a force against CETA. On the other hand, Hofer has raised the idea of a referendum on EU-membership in the wake of Brexit. It is unlikely that the FPÖ really will struggle for such a referendum, especially as there are currently no significant factions of the bourgeoisie that would be willing to engage in such a struggle. But the FPÖ will raise the idea again and again to underline their position as the only opposition to the EU. The EU’s open disregard of democracy and willingness to ignore popular opinions to push through pro-business legislation will strengthen Hofer, while the fear of a complete breakdown of the EU and economic instability will rally people behind Van der Bellen.

The new SPÖ-chancellor, Kern, has gained some sympathy through clever rhetoric and managed to stabilise the SPÖ-ÖVP government a bit. He imitates Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau by posing as new, fresh and progressive, even though he just continues the policies of his hated predecessor, Faymann. Kern’s honeymoon period will not last forever and will most likely not survive the rough times ahead, when Kern will show that in the end, he is an establishment-politician like all the others. However, the “Kern-effect” might still help Van der Bellen for this election.

While Kern and Van der Bellen will not only be incapable of stopping the rise of the FPÖ but in reality, help to prepare the ground for them even more, a Hofer presidency poses more immediate and acute threats to the organisations of the working class, the left, women, migrants and refugees. Still, in contrast to what international media and even some Austrian leftists proclaim, the FPÖ is still not a fascist party and fascism is not an immediate threat in Austria. However, a Hofer presidency would also strengthen the far-right across Europe, like the FN in France.

In the first run-off, the SLP (Austrian section of the CWI) called for a vote against Hofer, while at the same time ruthlessly criticising Van der Bellen and arguing the need for a new workers’ party with socialist policies if the far right is going to be permanently beaten. As it seems, this will also be the correct approach in this election. But more than ever, socialists should now also raise the idea of the abolition of presidency. The Austrian president has almost dictatorial powers, granted by a proto-fascist constitutional reform in 1929. Given the widespread anger about the current chaos, the idea of abolishing this office can gain some attraction in advanced layers of the working class. This would still not contradict voting against Hofer in autumn as a tactical move to win at least a little more time.

“Departure” – Austria’s quiet times are over

Time is the most that can be won in this election for the Left. As the old party establishment crumbles and early elections might become a real possibility, the need for a strong and radical left becomes more urgent every day, especially given the fact that the FPÖ has now continually led the opinion polls for a whole year.

At the beginning of June, over 1,000 people came together at the founding conference of “Aufbruch” (“departure”), which set itself the goal to build a left alternative from below against the politics for the rich. Aufbruch’s main slogan is “We can’t afford the rich anymore”, which is a good start to build a fightback against austerity and the far right. The conference’s size was significant for a small country like Austria and since then about 30 local groups have been established, but there is still lots of confusion on all levels of the project. The SLP is actively building Aufbruch and fights for a radical anti-capitalist program and an activist approach in Aufbruch. We also raise the need to openly tackle the question of a left wing alternative in upcoming elections as a first step to push back the FPÖ and fight austerity on the political plane. If Aufbruch uses the presidential elections to launch a campaign that exposes the anti-worker character of the FPÖ and proves to be an effective tool to fight the bosses’ attacks in autumn, it could quickly become an important factor in building the new socialist workers’ party that is so urgently needed.

The next months will be characterised by political instability, by ruptures in the old establishment, by unfolding contradictions between ideologues and careerists in the FPÖ and by a Left that is struggling to become a relevant factor in the struggles ahead.

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July 2016