Austria: Victory & defeat for everyone & noone

Presidential elections

For months the threat of the first post-Second World War election of a far right head of state in a western European nation attracted big international attention towards Austria. An Austrian “Trump-effect” was feared to further weaken what is left of the EU, which is facing increasing opposition and divisions which could threaten the future of the euro and the EU itself. Due to the embarrassing administrative mistakes, the first result of the election were legally annulled and after further embarrassing mistakes, the re-run had to be postponed by two months, meaning that the campaigns of the far right candidate, Hofer, and the Green party’s candidate, Van Der Bellen, went on for nearly a year.


One result is that Austria’s “word of the year 2016” is “Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung” (federal-presidential-election-runoff-repeat-delay) which underlines: this was seen as the most important political event of the year. has been covering the events quite closely:

After the first election:

After the runoff:

and after the court’s decision to have a re-run:


Neck and neck opinion polls showed no real favourite before the December 4 final election day, so the suspense was huge until the last moment. In the end Alexander Van der Bellen (VdB) won with 53.79% of the vote. The 74.2% turnout was up on the 68.5% in April’s first run and 72.7% in May’s annulled run-off vote.


The result was celebrated by the liberal media internationally as an important victory against the far right, a reason for ‘hope’ right after Trump's victory. But 46.21% for an openly racist candidate in a national vote is an historic high in second Austrian republic. The Freedom Party (FPÖ) is stronger than ever, at least when it comes to electoral support. In the last parliamentary election in 2013 the FPÖ scored 20.5%, but in April’s first round of the presidential vote it won 35.1% and its vote in the second run-off ballot was only slightly below the 49.7% it got in last May’s first run-off.


The longest campaign


Support for the Austrian political system has been very low for years. Not just the political parties but the whole system is seen as corrupt, fixed and unable to bring change for the better. The incompetence made obvious in the investigation of the first runoff and the ministry of interior’s inability to order correct absentee ballots (which led to the delay) increased this mood. With the former Austrian chancellor, Fayman, resigning in the middle of the campaign the crisis of the bourgeois democracy itself became undeniable.


Hofer promised to “clean” the system of all this. His posters claimed “a new concept of ministry” by which he meant to break with the long tradition of “passive” Presidents and use the whole range of authoritarian rights the president has by law. So, for many, a Hofer vote was seen as a chance to really hurt the hated government and establishment parties. To this extent it was very similar to the motives of a section of Trump voters. But trust in Hofer’s credibility decreased over the extended campaign. Although millions of euros were put into posters and advertisements in papers and so on, trust in Hofer fell by 11%.


But on the other hand more and more parts of the establishment, from the new chancellor to the biggest part of Austria’s liberal celebrities, rallied behind VdB. This and VdB’s whole campaign strategy made him THE candidate of the establishment. 24% of Hofer voters said they only voted for him because they wanted to stop VdB, you could call this a “Clinton Effect”. A far right leader was seen as the lesser evil compared to the candidate of the “go on as before”. At the same time, 42% of VdB voters gave “stop Hofer” as their main motivation. In the end, the fear of the political earthquake that a FPÖ victory would have meant was stronger than the hatred of the government, at least for now. While Hofer mostly mobilized the same people to vote for him as in the other elections, VdB was able to mobilize many of those do did not vote in the other rounds. But it is clear: this was neither a victory for the current system nor for the left, it was only buying time.


It can't go on like this but still does somehow


The FPÖ’s stable leading position in the opinion polls for a number of years now has changed the way in which they are treated by the other parties of the rich. The “grand-coalition-government” of the former social democratic SPÖ and the conservative ÖVP has been in crisis since even before the last national elections in 2013. They neither deliver the austerity the ruling class demands as fast as they wish nor do they (unsurprisingly) deliver on the election promises made to the general population. The ÖVP has been in regional coalition governments with the FPÖ several times, and in 2000, also on national level. More and more of the ÖVP’s leading members and rank and file would now again prefer such a coalition, even though they are likely to end up as the smaller partner.


However, also in the SPÖ, voices get louder in favour of opening the way for a SPÖ-FPÖ coalition. It is less likely they would join as the junior partner, but if the SPÖ remains with the Chancellor’s position (which is unlikely) maybe even a majority of the party would prefer this over a continued coalition with the conservatives. A recent TV event with the SPÖ-Chancellor, Kern, and the far right leader, Strache, which was planned as a confrontation, ended up in a “very pleasant meeting” for both of them. There is already a SPÖ-FPÖ coalition in one regional state and it is seen as a success so far by those involved. Hofer not becoming president may also have increased the chance for a coalition government including the far right, because now the power would not be so strongly concentrated with the FPÖ as it would have been if there was both a FPÖ president and the FPÖ was in the government.


The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2018, but talk of early elections is getting stronger. Both government parties are constantly losing ground in the polls, so some think the earlier there is a new election, the better. Also, layers of the capitalist class are hoping for a more efficient government when it comes to austerity if the FPÖ is involved. This hope is justified by their experience with FPÖ governments, which used racist division as a cover for their platform of austerity. But other layers of the capitalists, especially those who are more dependent on the world-market, fear isolationist politics.


FPÖ participation in the national government after the next elections seems very likely at the moment. However the feeling that they are so close to power might lead to internal struggles in the party that has as many contradictions as the FPÖ does. While some in the FPÖ can’t wait to get profitable and influential jobs in government or to bring their companies closer to the state, others remember how fast the FPÖ declined after they joined the government in 2000 and might want to take a more cautious approach. Signs that an inner-party opposition is forming behind Hofer, who is much more popular among the population than the current leader, Strache, are increasing. It is too early to bet on a change in leadership, but we know from experience with the far right both in Austria and internationally that, although such internal struggles might hurt the far right for a while, they will not get rid of them. The reason for their strength is not good leadership or charismatic figures, but the failure of the left to offer any realistic hope for change.


How to defeat the far right and the system of the super-rich


Most workers voting in the elections again voted for the FPÖ. However if you take into consideration those workers, mainly migrants, not allowed to vote then it is clear that the majority of the workers did not vote at all. However, the FPÖ gaining most votes from workers, especially amongst young workers who voted, shows something quite clear: It is the workers who are most alienated by this whole system and it is they who want to hurt it the most. But the FPÖ does not hurt the system, only its other parties. In fact the FPÖ is an even bigger threat to workers and social rights than the others, and whenever this becomes clear it has effects on the support for the FPÖ. For example, 62% of women voted for VdB, likely because, among other things, Hofer wants to make access to abortions harder and has published medieval views on “a woman’s role” in the past. However, the continued failure of the other parties to offer something better than the FPÖ allows the far right to regain most of the losses they suffer.


Of course, the majority of the FPÖ voters are neither racist nor tolerant to racism at this time, but for many voters they are just the “lesser evil”.


So the best strategy is to build a militant opposition against this system and the FPÖ at the same time. The prospects for Austrian capitalism are not great, the latest forecasts are for unemployment to continue its annual rise and reach 9.5% in 2018. And this is without a new instalment of a European or international crisis. What is needed is a new anti-capitalist workers’ party armed with a socialist programme that could offer the workers, the unemployed, women and the youth a chance to actually fight back and offer a real alternative. Recently, some first small steps to reorganise and rebuild the Austrian workers’ movement have been taken. As previously reported, the Socialist Left Party (SLP, CWI in Austria) is supporting the “Aufbruch” (“start/departure”) initiative to challenge the trade union bureaucracy and break the grip of both the former social democrats and the far right on the working class.

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December 2016