Austria: Greens enter government in coalition with Conservatives

[The] new government means “combination of fiscal restraint and tax cuts with environmental schemes and hard-line immigration policies” (Financial Times)

Early January in Austria saw the Greens and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) agree to form a coalition government following last September’s electoral gains for both parties. This is the first time that the Greens are in an Austrian government.

This coalition is being watched internationally with interest by Europe’s ruling classes as a potential model for other European countries like Germany, given the environmental crisis and the current electoral surge for green parties.

The government deal leaves Green voters with mixed feelings. Already it has disappointed some Green voters. It is seen by them as having compromised too much on questions of immigration in order to keep their promises on environmental questions. The new government will implement a ban on girls under the age of 14 wearing headscarves in schools as well as preventive detention for immigrants suspected of religious extremism. The introduction of preventative detention needs a change in the Constitution, the last time such a thing existed was under the Austro-fascists in the 1930s and, after 1938, the Nazis.

However many who voted Green still support the government’s formation as a lesser evil compared to the previous coalition of the conservative OVP and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). This collapsed in May 2019 following a corruption scandal involving the then FPÖ leader, HC Strache. But the longer this government lasts, the more it could see support for the Greens erode – it could even lead to the Greens completely dropping out of parliament once again, as they did in the 2017 election.

People’s Party leader and Chancellor (Premier), Sebastian Kurz, pledges to both “protect the environment and secure the borders” and to “fight global warming and illegal immigration”. Kurz says it was necessary for him to end the coalition with the Freedom Party because of the scandals. Behind this were the concerns of sections of the ruling class at the FPÖ’s attempts to deepen its support in the state apparatus.

The new coalition with the Greens enables Kurz to continue his hardline course on immigration and neoliberal policies, while combining them with policies of “green capitalism”. Green Party representatives said they have tactically allowed Kurz to continue his course on immigration to make sure voters don’t switch back to the Freedom party!

The coalition’s tax cuts are welcomed by big business. Austrian companies are worried about the international crisis of the car industry spreading to Austria – as the Austrian economy is heavily dependent on it, given that it is dominated by producers of car components. In combination with a commitment to stop government borrowing this could lead to further cuts in social spending. This is decidedly a government operating in the interests of the rich.

Shortly before the election, the SPÖ and the far right populist FPÖ voted through a measure that meant people who had worked for 45 years could take early retirement on a full pension – a response to the rising pressure from below. Already, the new government is planning to repeal this measure and reintroduce a 15% cut in the pensions of those who retire “early”. This had been on the ‘wish-list’ of bourgeois experts during the elections but only “raising the real pension age” was mentioned in the coalition’s programme.

The Greens leader and now Vice Chancellor, Werner Kogler, has justified this by saying only men benefit from this measure. This was an attempt to play women off against men and an argument rejected by the ÖGB trade union federation. Showing his pro-capitalist colours, Kogler also defends the government holding on to a “zero deficit” policy – something which usually means support for austerity measures.

However this new government also tries to give itself a “progressive” face. It plays on the fact that women make up 53.3% of the ministers. But the question of how many female ministers are in a government says nothing about the politics of that government. It is used to justify the cuts they are making and divide the working class – when in fact the cuts make the situation worse for women.

Green leaders justify compromises

In the same way environmental measures can be used to justify cuts. In the coalition agreement there is the possibility of short time working not only for companies in crisis but also for companies who want to switch to environmentally friendly production. There are some progressive environmental measures mentioned in the government’s programme, but it is not clear how they will be financed. There are some limited hints at CO2 taxes – but not as far-reaching as the Greens would have liked, as the ÖVP is worried about its support in the countryside. They are aware that CO2 taxes will anger the working class in areas where they are dependent on cars to get to work etc. as it will raise the costs of living.

There is one policy that the new government plans that is to the benefit of both workers and the environment which is cheaper tickets for public transport – trains in particular. Again it is not clear, though, how this measure will be financed.

What would be really needed, alongside free public transport and extending it to the countryside, in order to stop climate change, is to take industry, as well as transport and energy sectors, into public ownership and plan them democratically according to the needs of the working class and society as a whole. However this will not be possible with the ÖVP and it will not be possible without decisively breaking with capitalism.

This is the reason why the Greens “compromised” on their programme; the Green leaders fully accept capitalism. They accept the idea that there is only a certain amount of money that can be spent – because they do not dare touch the wealth of the rich. They also accept the idea that there is no alternative to a coalition with the ÖVP. They cannot envisage that a genuine workers’ party – that is desperately needed in Austria – could mobilise the working class along the lines of a socialist programme to break with capitalism and establish a government in the interests of the working class. But this is what is needed, in Austria and internationally. If such a party as a political alternative is not built, the far right could creep back into the picture and regain support.

This is why the argument that “any government is better than a government including the FPÖ” is short-sighted. It is understandable that many people feel this way. But this new government, in itself, will lay the basis for the FPÖ regaining strength, or another far right party being built, if a workers’ alternative is not built. Furthermore, the new government already is introducing or continuing many of the previous coalition’s policies.

Class struggles beginning

It is possible that there will be a honeymoon period for the new government. But the last two years have seen rising levels of class struggle, demonstrations and discontent. The Greens will be held to account.

The unions urgently need to build resistance against the cuts that the new government will no doubt introduce. At the moment, the union leadership is happy that the new government is pledging to work in a so-called “Social Partnership” – i.e. that government plans are negotiated with the unions and employers. But the unions cannot accept, in the name of “Partnership”, anti-worker and anti-poor measures demanded by the government and the bosses. We need to step up pressure on the union leaders to not accept cuts for the price of being in a position to negotiate them! What is also desperately needed is a new party of the working class.

Just days after the inauguration of the new government, a project towards a new left party was launched in Vienna – “Links Wien” (“Left Vienna”). Up to 450 people attended the launch meeting. Sozialistische Offensive took part in this two day meeting, making proposals on how to develop the new project, distributing material and selling its paper. This project is a follow up in Vienna to “Aufbruch”. This was a ‘left’ grouping launched in 2016 at a 1,000 strong national meeting. But Aufbruch subsequently failed to develop after deciding not to stand in the 2017 general election. It is a positive development that conclusions have been drawn from this and that activists now plan to stand in the Vienna city election later this year and use this as a platform to build a new party.

Yet now the danger exists that there is too much emphasis only on the electoral level. This new project could pick up support if it manages to organise resistance to the cuts of both the Social Democrat-led Vienna city government and the national ÖVP-Green coalition. In this way, it could attract people who are disappointed by both the Greens and the Social Democrats (SPÖ). But “Links Wien’s” programme does not mention either. At the time of writing, it focuses mainly on an academic layer and adopts an identity politics approach to the issues faced by women and migrants. But this could change if other layers looking for an alternative to join.

This initiative also vaguely refers to the need to get rid of capitalism. But it does not say what the alternative should be – a socialist alternative, in our view. Despite its weaknesses, the new project is an opportunity for the left. The fact that more people originally wanted to attend the launch meeting than the 500 that the venue could accommodate shows the vacuum that currently exists and that there are people are looking for an alternative.

The situation in Austria at the present time is changing. The economic situation is beginning to cool down and the new government will no doubt have to react to that. The first stirrings of class struggle are beginning to be felt in workplaces. We have to build a socialist alternative that is able to fight on the immediate issues while at the same time building a movement to end capitalism and transform our lives in a society that meets the needs of the many instead of serving the profits of few.


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