Austria: Collapse of far right-conservative coalition poses need for political alternative

Sebastian Kurz (Wikicommons/CC)

At the end of May events moved fast in Austria after the then vice-Chancellor HC Strache was seen in the leaking of the “Ibiza Video”. He was seen and heard plotting to take over the Kronenzeitung, Austria’s biggest newspaper, with the help of what he believed to be a Russian investor who was also offered government contracts.

The coalition government coalition of Sebastian Kurz’s conservative Peoples’ party (ÖVP) and Strache’s far right populist Freedom party (FPÖ) rapidly collapsed. Kurz was ousted as Chancellor (prime minister) by a parliamentary ‘no confidence’ vote, just one day after his party had increased its vote in the Euro elections to 34%. Now elections are due to be held in September, although a date has not been set yet.

Filling the gap is now a technocratic ‘government of experts’, headed by Brigitte Bierlein, president of the constitutional high court who has a conservative background and links to ÖVP and FPÖ. However she was accepted by all the political parties, as she is also seen as someone who will not do everything the ex-coalition parties want. The list of ministers she presented was a mix of state executives from the apparatus and people who are close to both Kurz and the FPÖ.

These include Andreas Reichardt, who is in a far right fraternity, as minister of transport. Previously, he was secretary of the ministry under the FPÖ’s Hofer. Photos from his youth apparently show him, alongside Strache, conducting, “Wehrsportübungen” (war ‘sports’ activities), with far right would-be paramilitaries.

Bierlein’s partner is a judge with ties to the FPÖ, someone who set the Holocaust denier David Irving free in 2006. As a concession to the social democratic SPÖ, Clemens Jabloner, president of the administrative high court and close to the SPÖ, will be Vice Chancellor. The new government also include other ministers close to the SPÖ.

President Van der Bellen, a former green party member but still seen as a Green, decided for Bierlein because she is seen by some as not being part of the political parties. It is a move to please all the political parties and also appear neutral/independent, when, of course, this is not a neutral or independent government, it is firmly pro-capitalist. One party, Liste Jetzt (“Now List”, a split from the Greens), raised the idea that the elections should be postponed with the expert government filling the gap, so the political parties can put pressure on it with a “free play of forces”.

Already there are a number of suggestions floated around of proposals to reverse some ÖVP/FPÖ decisions, even including the prolonging of maximum working hours to 12 hours a day. This was at the heart of the ruling class’s agenda when Kurz came to power in 2017.

As Liste Jetzt fears losing their parliamentary positions their policy initiatives could temporarily act as a lever and push the SPÖ and the FPÖ to support them so as not to lose their own votes. This also played a role in the no confidence vote going through. In a distorted way, while not being a working class party but rather an instable election vehicle for a former green party MP, Peter Pilz, Jetzt, are, for now, partially filling the vacuum on the left inside parliament. It shows in a way what could be done with a solid working class party which not only uses the parliament to expose the established parties but goes further – just imagine if there was a force that mobilised organised resistance together with the trade unions against austerity.

‘Yes, we can’

Throughout the government crisis, Van der Bellen has been very careful to create an atmosphere of calmness and stability, with the slogan “Wir kriegen das schon hin” (an Austrian version of “yes we can”). The fact that the capitalist state institutions may have been put into question by this scandal is why Van der Bellen (VdB) has been so concerned about stability. He is making sure the state institutions do not lose credibility and, at the same time, acting on behalf of those sections of the ruling class who were concerned over FPÖ influence over key parts of the state machine. VdB was originally against the vote of no confidence against Kurz, which was voted through by SPÖ, FPÖ, and Jetzt; currently the Greens have no members in the parliament. There were a few moments when the ruling class was split and did not know how to react. However VdB pulled them together.

The Ibiza video not only showed the real face of the FPÖ and the far right – corrupt cronies for the rich, as opposed to their self-styled image of the fighters for working people. It also questioned the legitimacy of the institutions of the capitalist state. It lays open the idea that political parties are generally financed by the rich.

The same fear of capitalist institutions being put into question can be seen in how the Kronenzeitung, the biggest paper in Austria, which played a central role in the video, reacted in the first instance. On the one hand, they tried to present themselves as independent as possible and make sure they are not seen as a medium that can be bought. Ironically, 49% of the Kronenzeitung have just been bought by one of the big business fat cats, Rene Benko, quoted in the video. The way they reacted to the scandal shows how concerned they were that they themselves and the media, as capitalist institutions, could be put into question now. They slightly changed their tune when they received a lot of letters by Strache fans asking questions about the origin of the video.

Then again, politicians are increasingly seen as corrupt, which is why the scandal did not provoke a big slump in the votes for the FPÖ. They did lose, but have now stabilised at 17-18%. The attitude of FPÖ voters was a) they are all corrupt anyway, b) Strache was drunk and c) he was set up. FPÖ voters voted for the FPÖ with little illusions – they know what politicians are like. There is the possibility that Strache, who got 42,000 preference votes in the Euro elections, with a support campaign by the far right ‘Identitäre’ grouping, might found his own party if he is expelled or does not get any support within the FPÖ. There is a part of the FPÖ around Hofer, the former minister of transport, which wants to remain in government. They will try to present themselves as suitable for governing again and not involved in any corruption. They will also want to rid themselves of Strache and the notion that the FPÖ is corrupt. The situation regarding what will happen to the FPÖ is very open and fluid.

What is clear, though, is that the problem of the far right will not be ended by this scandal, no matter whether they split or do not. The conditions that led to the rise of the far right continue to exist – anger about the social situation, alienation from the political structures, as well as a vacuum on the left. It is the social democrats, who were in coalition governments with the Peoples’ Party, for many years, who are responsible for the FPÖ’s repeated successes since 1990. Today, any new government which does not reverse the attacks on the working class by the ‘black-blue’ (ÖVP-FPÖ) government or that continues attacks on the working class will lay the basis for a new populist party, no matter what name it might have.

Kurz is up to 38% support in the polls. This repeats what happened in 2002, when the ÖVP won by a landslide (42%) after the breakdown of the first ‘black-blue’ government. Support lost by the FPÖ is being picked up by Kurz’s populism, as he tries to present himself as a ‘trustworthy, clean and respectable’ anti-immigration politician.

SPÖ down in polls

The SPÖ, meanwhile, is down in the polls from 27% earlier this year to around 22% now. Incredibly they seem not to have not benefitted from this scandal but actually lost! This may be down to a certain shift of votes to the Greens, who are now at ten percent in the polls after having lost all their parliamentary seats in 2017. But it is also because for many the SPÖ is not seen as a credible alternative – they often are seen as corrupt, clientist and pro-cuts, as well. It is against this background that from repeatedly winning over 50% of the votes during the 1970s, the SPÖ won just under 27%, in 2017, and at the end of May were getting around 22% in the opinion polls. The Greens both feed from the popular mood on climate change, as well as a wish by tactical Green/SPÖ/Liste Jetzt voters to have them back in parliament, as they are seen as a more stable party than Liste Jetzt.

Within the SPÖ, there is now a discussion about their chairperson, as well as a still ongoing debate about political direction. It is a debate about which party the SPÖ should aim at to win voters back – the FPÖ or the Greens. However it is not a debate about ‘cuts’ or ‘no cuts’ though, which would be the real strategy of winning back to the SPÖ the voters it has lost to the FPÖ. In the federal state of Burgenland the SPÖ is in coalition with the FPÖ and their regional leaders represent the wing of the SPÖ, which was is more open to working with the FPÖ. While this might temporarily be seen as not an option, there has been an attempt by the media to push the SPÖ towards the position of Hans Peter Doskozil. Doskozil, the Burgenland SPÖ leader and since February the state’s governor, is closer to Kurz’s and the FPÖ’s anti-immigrant course.

However the combination of the FPÖ being discredited as a coalition partner, as well as the shift towards the Greens is currently weakening the support within the SPÖ for the political course Doskozil stands for. The recent shift of the mood among voters towards the Greens makes the Vienna mayor Michael Ludwig concerned about losing votes to the Greens in the Vienna elections due in 2020.


The speed of the collapse of the so-called “black-blue” government in Austria is an expression of the instability of seemingly stable governments. Movements since the government’s formation did not undermined its overall support, partly because of its use of anti-migrant and nationalist sentiments. This was true of both the weekly Thursday demonstrations in Vienna against the FPÖ on general questions, such as racism or attacks on democratic rights and trade union mobilisations on social questions. However there was a 100,000 strong trade union protest in June 2018 against the lengthening of the maximum working day to 12 hours, mobilisations against the fusion of the regional state health insurance bodies which would mean cuts. There have also been smaller protests against a version of the German Hartz IV model of attacking unemployment pay that the government meant to implement in Austria. Now the government had seemingly stumbled over its own feet.

However the leadership of the ÖGB trade union federation did not build upon the widespread opposition to the 12 hour day, thereby taking the pressure off the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. In June 2018 there was a popular mood for a general strike. But the ÖGB leaders chose to divert the resistance away from confronting the government into seeking anti-12 hour deals in that autumn’s collective bargaining round, thereby splitting the struggle into different sectors of the working class.

Now the ÖGB leaders have issued a statement offering a willing hand to a new government and “guaranteeing stability” if the ‘social partnership’ is renewed. In other words, the union leaders want to back to the old days of co-operation with the state and employers. They do not see that situation has changed and the ruling class wants to make inroads into workers’ living standards.

Instead of offering co-operation, the trade unions should be demanding that the so-called “reforms” of the old government, especially the 12 hour day, the fusion of the health service and the Hartz IV style changes to the unemployment benefits are immediately taken back. And if the reforms are not withdrawn, the union leaders should demand that any new government reverses these measures. The trade unions should not support any party that refuses to commit to immediately implementing these steps.

‘Lesser evilism’

In the elections, next autumn, while there might be a ‘lesser evil’ mood towards the opposition parties (social democrats, greens and the liberal ‘NEOS’), they are increasingly not seen as an alternative, as is particularly expressed with the SPÖ polling badly. The social democrat leaders, in reality, were happy that the FPÖ did the dirty work of introducing the 12 hour day for the ruling class. The 12 hour day had been on the ruling class’s agenda for a long time. But none of the SPÖ-ÖVP grand coalitions managed to introduce it because they had relied on the ‘social partners’ (ÖGB and the bosses’ organisations) to find a solution.

Yet, such is the pressure and the instability in the situation, that even this deeply unpopular measure could be reversed. The FPÖ is currently an unpredictable factor and all the parties fear losing their votes/support. If the 12 hour day is really taken back, it would be a late victory of the union led resistance against it in 2018. Given this situation, it is all the more urgent that the ÖGB takes action on this issue.

The ruling class turned to the FPÖ as a coalition partner in the hope that they would push the 12 hour day through, which they did. In the future, the NEOS will be a potential coalition partner for Kurz and the ÖVP, as are the Greens (although they currently prefer the SPÖ as a coalition partner to the ÖVP). A very real possibility, with Kurz winning 38% and a weakened FPÖ at 18%, is a new version of the ÖV-FPÖ coalition. Perhaps with a FPÖ that appears to gloss over their far right elements and push them into the background.

But such a development in the FPÖ would not mean the end of right wing populism trying to exploit working and middle class alienation and anger. It is nearly 30 years since the FPÖ made its first electoral breakthrough. Since then it was worked to consolidate its protest vote into a firm base. But even if the FPÖ declined, there would still be the danger of new far right forces developing. The Netherlands have seen in recent years a succession of far right populist parties rise and fall.

What is needed now urgently is a workers and left alternative at the coming election, standing in defence of living standards, against the 12 hour day and the other attacks of the government. We need to start to build a movement that aims to win support for a government that will break with the capitalist system. If such a new workers’ and left political alternative is not built, there will be the continual danger that the right will creep back in.

It is clear that now there is definitely space to the left of the SPÖ and Greens that could be filled with a working class party that challenged austerity. Three years ago, 1,000 people attend a national meeting in Vienna called by the Aufbruch movement to discuss building a left alternative, but tragically this opportunity was lost. Now the government crisis gives a new opportunity to pose the start of creating such a force by challenging the established parties.

Work needs to start now to build such a new movement and party, at the same time as striving to ensure that it adopts socialist programme. This way, austerity and the turmoil of capitalism can be ended. We do not want to build a party that, like Syriza, in Greece, capitulates at its first serious test.


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