Austrian elections: Greens gain, while far-right and social democrats lose

Sebastian Kurz (Photo: Dragan Tatic, Wikimedia commons)

The September 29th Austrian elections saw a surge by the Greens and losses by both the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the social democrats (SPÖ).

The former Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, whose conservative people’s party (ÖVP) came first with 37.5%, benefitted from the loss of support for the FPÖ. Many FPÖ voters switched to the ÖVP, others simply stayed home following the ‘Ibiza scandal’. This concerned a film that surfaced last May showing the then FPÖ vice chancellor, HC Strache, talking to a supposed Russian oligarch’s niece about granting government contracts in return for receiving secret donations to the FPÖ. Though the real straw that broke the camel’s back were reports of Strache’s lifestyle being financed by the FPÖ – this did not go down well with many voters.

However it would be wrong now to think this result marks the end of the far right in Austria. The FPÖ had entered the government before in 2000 and suffered a crushing election defeat in 2002, when they were reduced to ten percent. In 2004, the FPÖ split into two parties, the BZÖ around Jörg Haider, which remained in government with the ÖVP, and the FPÖ, which was then refounded with Strache as the leading figure. This party combined racism with social and anti-cuts rhetoric. The “new” FPÖ also included the elements of the former party that were further to the right, like the far-right “Burschenschaften” (student based fraternities). The new FPÖ then set out to regain ground successfully throughout the last 15 years, culminating in them regaining, in 2017, their 1999 vote (with 26% after the refugee crisis of 2015). This result allowed the FPÖ to enter into the coalition with Kurz after the elections in 2017.

This renewed participation in government faced the same contradictions as before; a right wing populist party in a pro-capitalist government having to disappoint their voter base with cuts. In 2003 it was the cuts in pensions which then provoked an almost general strike.  In 2018 it was a law that prolonged the maximum daily working hours to 12 hours which triggered a massive union organised demonstration of 100,000.  In fact, the two years since 2017 have seen regular demonstrations against the FPÖ and the “black blue” (ÖVP/FPÖ) government as they did in 2000.

This election was less polarised than the general election, in 2017, when migration dominated the discussion. This time, the climate movement and the corruption scandals were the main themes. This strengthened the Greens who were propelled back into parliament. The Greens had dropped out of parliament in 2017 because of a split, but now re-entered with a vote of 13.8 percent in the wake of the climate movement. Hopes are high among their voters that the Greens will introduce pro-climate measures when in government with the ÖVP, now the most likely coalition option for a new government. Many also voted for the Greens for them to participate in a ‘lesser evil’ government with the ÖVP to keep the FPÖ out of government.

However many Green voters, but particularly the young and first time voters whose support the Greens picked up with the climate movement, will be very disappointed when they are confronted with the reality of what policies the Green party will defend as long as they are in government. A coalition of the Greens and the ÖVP would probably find common ground on economic questions – the Greens are pro-capitalist and have already played a role in regional governments carrying out cuts. If such a government implements cuts, this could very likely strengthen the FPÖ again as an opposition force. The same could be true if a ‘black green’ government introduces pro-capitalist measures to save the climate – such as taxes on fuel, which would be a way to make the working class and the middle classes pay for the climate crisis through mass taxation.

Counter reforms

The ruling class had needed the FPÖ to introduce more radical counter-reforms like the 12 hour day law, just like they did in 2000, to end social partnership deals between the bosses and the unions and go for a more confrontational austerity course. Then again, the FPÖ, and particularly interior minister Herbert Kickl, went too far for the majority of the ruling class, especially in widening FPÖ influence in key parts of the state machine. This is one of the reasons, although it is still open whether the FPÖ will re-enter a government, why the ruling class and Kurz is against Kickl becoming minister of interior again – one of the conditions the FPÖ has made to remain in government.

The September 29th elections took place against a background of a slowing down economy. The ruling class wants a stable government to manage the approaching crisis. Each of the options they have as potential government coalitions seem unstable. Kurz has announced he will talk to all the parties. But the FPÖ announced they will probably prefer not going into a government again given the election result. The Greens too might be cautious after their being kicked out of parliament in 2017. They know that government participation might undermine their support again.

The most preferred option for Kurz’s voter base is a minority government, but this is an even more unstable option. Despite being very unpopular, it cannot be ruled out that the outcome will end being another ÖVP-SPÖ grand coalition, as it is the most stable one, at least in the short term. If the right wing in the SPÖ gains the upper hand, Kurz might find a willing coalition partner to continue his anti-immigrant course. That might provoke reactions from inside the SPÖ. Whatever Kurz does, it will go against the feelings of parts of his voter base, with two thirds against a grand coalition and another third against either a coalition with the FPÖ or the Greens.

At the time of writing, it cannot even be ruled out that there could be new elections again in the not too distant future. It is not the preferred scenario for the ruling class given the coming crisis. One commentator fears that spending consumption could be hit if there is no government agreement before Christmas.

No matter what the outcome of the government negotiations, a new government will have to deal with the dire economic prospects and a smaller room to manoeuvre. It will have to serve the needs of the capitalists in the face of a new crisis. The ÖVP has already announced that they want a partner with who can deliver on “Standortpolitik”, i.e. a course friendly to the bosses, making the Austrian economy more competitive, which is a sign of growing tensions between the rival capitalist classes, internationally. All potential partners, the FPÖ, the SPÖ, the Greens and the Neos (liberals who call themselves aptly “Neos” as in “neoliberal”) – are firmly pro-capitalist, will defend the interests of the ruling class and deliver measures to stabilise capitalism in crisis. They will try to make the working class pay for the costs of the crisis. Several bourgeois think tanks and bosses organisations have already put their wish list to a new government, including a rise of the retirement age.

The FPÖ equally lost votes to the ÖVP and the non-voters (roughly 220,000 to each). Voter turnout was significantly lower than in 2017 when 80% went to vote (this time it was only 75%). This was the second lowest voter turnout since 1945, only 2013 saw a lower turnout. In 2002, when the FPÖ was punished for their first government participation, voter turnout surged to 84% and pushed the ÖVP to over two million votes. The fact that many former FPÖ voters chose not to vote is a sign that they do not feel represented by any of the establishment parties. This shows further potential for old and new right wing populist and far right parties, which can be limited if a genuine left alternative not only speaks up against austerity but organises a fight back.

Far right threat

The threat of the far right did not just disappear. The conditions for the rise of the far right are still there, especially the vacuum on the left. An FPÖ in opposition can recover and regain support with a renewed social or anti-cuts rhetoric, probably linked to nationalist and anti-migrant demagogy. If there is a new ÖVP- FPÖ coalition those who hoped for an end to the FPÖ in government will be disappointed. But a coalition of that kind will be very instable and potentially short lived, as the FPÖ will lose further support if it continues the pro-austerity course.

It is also possible that the contradictions in the FPÖ tear it apart again, with conflicts between those who want to stay in government and those who want to regain their support as an opposition party. Currently it is open whether Strache himself stays in politics (right now he says he will not). The FPÖ leadership wants to keep a distance from him, to keep up the appearance of being anti-corruption. At the same time, they want to avoid a situation where Strache starts running his own rival candidates in elections. At the moment, the FPÖ has suspended Strache, in line with his pledge to freeze his membership. In a Facebook comment, Strache responds to comments that he ‘has damaged the party’ by saying that the party leadership was “cuddling up to Kurz” (a course that he himself had supported when in government) and are responsible for the losses. This hints at the possibility of the FPÖ, or parts of it, if there are splits, regaining their role as an opposition party and ending the policy of ‘cuddling up’. No matter what happens to the FPÖ, the far right threat will continue to exist long as there is no fighting political alternative with a socialist programme.

The SPÖ is at a further low at 21.2%. It has lost 200,000 votes to the Green Party. In the election, the SPÖ was still selling itself to the ÖVP as a potential coalition partner. It stated that repealing the 12-hour day law was not a condition for it entering a coalition. The lack of a combative strategy of defending the interests of the working class, and lack of the credibility of a force which is willing to do so, is one of the reasons why the SPÖ lost, apart from the climate driven shift to the Greens.

Following the election, the party’s business manager resigned and the party leader, Pamela Rendi Wagner, is expected to follow soon. Rendi Wagner was already a compromise candidate between the different wings within the SPÖ. Representatives of the right wing are bound to fill the gap, especially the forces around Ernst Doskozil, who is regional leader in Burgenland. This will probably provoke protests by what remains of a left wing in the SPÖ. Max Lercher, who is seen as a representative of the left, is demanding a “reform party congress”, calling for a “new Hainfeld” (the ‘Hainfelder Parteitag’ was the founding congress of social democracy, in 1888) but it remains to be seen whether this becomes a significant development. Ironically, Lercher, whose political roots lie in the regional SPÖ in Styria, did not consistently oppose the regional cuts in Styria in 2013-15, which the SPÖ was responsible for as they were then in a regional government coalition with the ÖVP.

The most recent decline in support for the SPÖ is a further stage in a long decline, having started in the mid-1980s. Initially, this reached a low in 1999, at 33.21% and then, having profited from being in opposition, recovered a bit after 2000 (36.5% in 2002, 35.2% in 2006) but the SPÖ’s vote has been declining since then. The days of the 1970s of the SPÖ getting 50% or more of the vote have gone.

It is striking that the FPÖ entering the government in 2017 did not strengthen the SPÖ, at all, and that Ibiza further weakened its support from 26% to the current 21.2%. The SPÖ won 700,000 votes less this time than in 2002, when it won 1,700,000 votes. Politically it is only a radical anti-austerity course that can begin to halt this process but that would mean a complete break with the SPÖ’s pro-capitalist policies and practices over the last decades.

Those searching for a political alternative are growing. Even if the Greens, this time, were attractive for a voters politicised by climate change, others felt none of the existing parties really represented them. Liste Jetzt (‘Now’) which in 2017 kicked the Greens out of parliament, did not make it back into parliament. This was partly due to allegations of sexism against its leader but also because of the drive back to the Greens.

Left lists

To the left of the SPÖ and the Greens were several lists standing in the elections, including the Communist Party (in the form of a left list involving non-CP members) and a list called ‘Wandel’ (Change). The vote for these left lists, in total, grew from 40,000 votes, in 2017, to 55,000 votes, in 2019, despite the climate change-driven surge for the Greens and the high pressure to vote for the parliamentary parties to avoid a ‘wasted’ vote. The Communist Party (CP) lost 7,000 votes compared to 2017, but it is significant that Wandel attracted 14,000 votes in addition to the CP’s vote, in 2017. Clearly, Wandel attracted a layer that might not have voted for the CP if it was the only list on the left standing.

This is a small hint of what is possible. Both the CP and the Wandel have weaknesses, they are not part of living movements, but the Wandel, for example, had as one of their demands a monthly minimum wage of 2000 euro after taxes.

The higher vote for the left might have been helped by the fact that in these elections many decisions seemed to be already clear. It was clear, for example, that the Greens would make it into parliament, and hence it was easier, this time, to vote for the small parties which had a remote chance of making it into parliament.

The CP has already announced wanting to collaborate with the Wandel and Liste Jetzt. Nevertheless just an alliance is not the qualitative step that is needed, especially if the CP repeats its top-down methods and political mistakes of the past in alliances and election campaigns. It cannot be excluded that individuals like Daniela Holzinger (a former SPÖ member of parliament who stood on the slate  of Liste Jetzt) will play a role in the process of building a new left formation. But Liste Jetzt was formed in a very top-down way (Peter Pilz needed an election vehicle after his split from the Greens and simply gathered other homeless member of parliaments). This might fit well to the top down approach of the CP but in order to build a combative force it needs to be rooted in struggles and built from below, and with a dynamic leadership.

The SPÖ’s decline and the threat of the far right show that a new party of the working class which represents the interests of working class people and has the capacity to organise and mobilise struggles is needed. It has to be part of movements. How do we get there?

It is necessary to prepare to build a movement to confront any new government. This should be to force it to repeal the 12 hour day legislation and other counter-reforms of the past government, and to block any new attacks linked to the pressure from the bosses in the face of a crisis.

We have to put pressure on the ÖGB trade union leadership to mobilise and potentially use the wage negotiations of the metal workers, for instance, where conflict is looming. With decisive action and strikes both higher wages can be won despite the crisis and a new government can be forced to drop the 12 hour day legislation.

An indication for the pressure from below mounting is the fact that just before the election parliament passed a law to soften the pension cuts that were introduced in 2003 for a layer of industrial workers. The wage rounds since the passing of the 12 hour day law, in 2018, had been characterised by sharper conflicts and confrontations and even strikes (this contributes to the current wage negotiations being a sharper conflict).

Workers’ demands

Workers want compensation for longer working hours. We need to build an opposition inside the unions to transform the unions into democratic fighting bodies. Union activists should also play a role in building a new workers’ party. There are indications of growing unrest in the workforce. There have been workplace meetings at the airports and in the meat industry and protests in the social sector. The union was forced to start a campaign for more staff in the hospitals following the grassroots campaign of ‘sozial aber nicht blöd’ (‘Social but not stupid’) and protests of hospital staff in Vienna.

Before the elections there had been growing protests against the FPÖ in the countryside. The climate change protests are an indication of a new generation growing up with a greater preparedness to go on the streets to fight for demands. We have to use this new combativity and unease to build a new left force that can provide a political alternative to the existing parties. With the right strategy such a party could gather mass support. It needs to reject any kind of austerity and fight for an improvement of living standards, which is the only way to also counter the racism of the FPÖ and ÖVP.

It needs a socialist programme to be able to not give in to the pressures of the economic crisis. Capitalism is a system of crisis. We need a socialist planned economy, as an alternative to both the economic and the climate change crises. For years, we have seen changing government coalitions – a ‘grand coalition’ to ÖVP/FPÖ, back to another grand coalition and then a return to an ÖVP/FPÖ coalition – with nothing changing. Yet things got worse for working class people, leading to growing alienation. We need a socialist society to end all this.


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October 2019