Austrian general elections – more than just a ‘shift to the right’

SLP election campaigners

The results of the early Austrian general election seem to offer a bleak future for working class people and immigrants. The main parties of the ruling class won, including the openly racist and far right ‘Freedom party’ (FPÖ). Both the conservative party (ÖVP) and the FPÖ gained both in votes and in percentages.

The FPÖ nearly came second, with only a small gap separating it from the Social Democrats (SPÖ). The SPÖ, the party of the outgoing chancellor, managed to neither lose nor win, slightly increasing its vote and keeping its percentage share. This is remarkable, in itself, after months of crisis and open disruption inside the SPÖ.

The ÖVP, the junior partner in the former grand coalition, was able to attract many voters, including those who last time voted for the FPÖ. They did this by imitating the FPÖ’s politics and agitation on refugees, combined with PR-stunts featuring Kurz, their new young “successful” and “dynamic” leader. They even changed the party’s colour from an uninspiring black to a flashy turquoise, following trends we already saw in other countries with “new leaders”, like Macron.

The big loser of the elections was the Green Party. It suffered a split a few months ago, after ousting a long standing and well-known member, Peter Pilz. He had gathered together his own group, in record time, which then overtook the Green party and got elected into parliament, while the original Greens will be out of parliament this term and have to reorganize.

Another neoliberal party, called NEOS, will also be in the new parliament. All other parties were far off getting over the 4% hurdle to enter parliament.

There is currently no trend towards a new left formation or workers’ party in Austria. So the general mood against “business as usual” was skillfully exploited by the conservatives. With racist phrases and a “serious authoritarian” approach, their new leader, Sebastian Kurz, managed to absorb a large proportion of those who were close to the FPÖ, the BZÖ (a former split from the FPÖ that recently collapsed) or an Austro-Canadian billionaire’s political adventure (Team Stronach) which suffered the same fate as the now-dead BZÖ. While the new conservative hero Kurz never did hide his neo-liberal views, another openly pro-bosses’ party with a “progressive” outlook (NEOS) was able to survive with 5.3% of the vote and keep its place in parliament.

The polls were far off the actual results in regard to the SPÖ. Although facing huge problems the social democracy played the only card they had left: presenting the SPÖ as the last stronghold against a right/far-right-coalition with a comfortable majority. It did work. Many left voters followed those “tactics”. It even contributed to the disaster for the Green party, who saw their support collapse from 12.4% to 3.4%.

While the far-right FPÖ won 26% (up 5.5 percentage points from 2013), this did not result in them getting second or even first place, as opinion polls were suggesting until a few months ago. There is obviously a convergence of the presentations of FPÖ and ÖVP, with the FPÖ being the loser of this battle. Voting for the FPÖ seem to have lost some of its “outlaw” fascination, given the FPÖ leaders’ new streamlined appearance. Nevertheless the danger from the far-right, including fascist forces, is still severe and might even speed up with under the likely ÖVP-FPÖ-coalition.

Green party’s downward spiral

The downward spiral of the Green party is a result of their political demise, as they became the “ecological wing” of the capitalists. As part of regional governments, the Green Party is responsible for many social cuts. Activists from its early years have left the Greens already or where thrown out, as happened with its youth wing in spring 2017. The new election list of the former long-time Green member, Peter Pilz, got over the 4% hurdle, partly because he is known as being a “rebel” and an incorrupt whistle-blower. However Pilz’s image of being anti-establishment is not consistent if you look closer: his positions on Muslims, refugees and social questions reveal a similar rightward evolution as the Green mother party has had.

The crisis of the bourgeois political system and all its parties is present in Austria too. But in contrast to other countries in Europe, neither of the quarrelling and crisis-ridden ex-grand coalition partners (SPÖ, ÖVP) lost out in this election but actually won more support, for the time being. We might find the explanation for this in the fact that since the mass protests of 2003 (which saw a kind of one day general strike) class struggle stalled, as has the development of any new left formations with only a minor attempt which never gained real momentum, so far. Currently movements on the ground were relatively small and locally confined to protests in the health and social sectors. They have not yet moved on to a more general political pathway. And while the SPÖ has no deep roots anymore amongst the working class and activists, it still soaks up votes and sows illusions in “tactical politics” and “lesser evilism”.

The conservatives might feel strengthened, but it will soon become clear that the fundamental and underlying crisis of capitalism will mean instability. This could be accelerated by the planned onslaught of the most likely chancellor, Kurz, against working conditions (especially on working times), the system of collective bargaining and maybe even on the two special extra monthly wage payments most working people get in Austria. The main and hard-core organisation of the capitalists know that their chances will not be any more favourable anytime soon than now with Kurz as their direct enforcer. And Kurz knows it too. But such attacks would undermine the populism that was an important part of the ÖVP and especially the FPÖ’s election campaigns; the ‘popular’ politicians would become unpopular.

There are also other governing coalition possibilities, though less likely. A prolongation of the series of “grand coalitions” is possible, although this time with changed power relations, as the SPÖ would now be in a junior position. The most unlikely but not excluded third option would be a SPÖ-FPÖ-coalition. But this would pose the “danger” to SPÖ leaders of totally undermining any credibility or illusions that the SPÖ has left amongst voters.

With the prospect of ÖVP-FPÖ attacks on social conditions and workers, the pro-cuts and state-racist SPÖ leaders could still try to place the party as the “lesser evil”. The price of losing office would be high for the SPÖ’s bureaucrats and officials – loss of power and money.

Though the future of the SPÖ is relevant for the development of new left and working class formations, the speeding up of social attacks by a ÖVP-FPÖ government might prove more important, bringing back movements on the streets and in the workplaces. These activists could be more important than a largely passive reaction to a defeated SPÖ, especially given the fact that the FPÖ won more voters from the working class. The transformation of the SPÖ into a largely capitalist formation has gone a long way, as has the weakening of its roots in the working class. The fact that over 1,000 people came together in June last year to discuss building a new left alternative already showed that many were looking at what can be done. The fact that the record of the last SPÖ in government again resulted in a right wing victory in these latest elections will, over time, pose more sharply about what can be done to defend working people and defeat the right.

The economic situation in Austria is in a phase of weak recovery, but no solid boom. With a high export rate the capitalists want to cut the cost of production. There will be no room for lasting reforms to some parts of the working class. The recovery will not translate into a higher share for most. On the contrary, pressure will increase on the standard of living with further cuts in health services and the education sector, on wages (collective bargaining), the weakening of the workers’ organisations (unions and the official, legal institution called the ‘Workers’ Chamber’) and further degradation of democratic rights, to name the most important.

Shift to the right?

Is there a shift to the right in Austria? The situation is much more complex and contradictory than this question implies. The desire for change is apparent and the lack of a real anti-capitalist answer is acute. The candidatures of the Communist Party (together with the expelled ex-Green youth) nationwide and the election campaign of SLP (CWI Austria) in Vienna and Upper Austria could in no way compensate for that. With no mass or even semi mass socialist alternative visible it was possible for both Kurz and the ex-Green politician Pilz to make gains from the longing for change from both the right and left. The election campaigns revealed the importance of social issues, although much of this was a done via blaming refugees (and not only by the far-right, FPÖ). But even the FPÖ had to use the term “fairness”. If future social battles develop the consciousness of workers and youth, the establishment parties will have much less chance to exploit the hopes for real social justice with their hollow phrases and the use of racism.

The left, in the sense of a real anti-capitalist and socialist left, came out of the elections very weak. The communist party won more than 1% in the 2013 elections but has now dropped to 0.8%, although this time running a more active campaign with the help of many young, motivated ex-Green party youth activists.

The result for the SLP was expected to be very limited from the outset, as we only stood in the capital Vienna and the Upper Austria region, with no chance of any national TV coverage and with a very tight budget. While our campaign was centred on finding new activists and support amongst people through discussions and activities, the “CP+green youth” alliance had high hopes in doubling or even quadrupling the 1% the communist party won in 2013. Their disappointment could lead to wrong conclusions. The SLP has always stressed the fact that a lack of class struggles cannot be substituted for by even the best election campaign strategy. While we won just 0.1% in Vienna, we had a target for winning new members and we nailed it. Sales of our paper were extremely high, especially in Upper Austria, when we had to collect signatures for the SLP to be allowed on the ballot papers. Our activities included international solidarity (against repression in Hong Kong and Catalonia). Any vote for our party is a potential activist or at least supporter, not just a once in a while voter.

Any new government will attack the working class. The key points of conflict will most likely be over collective bargaining and proposals that would allow a 12 hour working day. With possible mass resistance, the task of socialists will to connect with the workplaces and fighting unionism and to re-arm the movement with socialist policies and principles.

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October 2017