Elections in Vienna show mood for change in turbulent times

Michael Ludwig, SPÖ Mayor of the City of Vienna (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CEU / Daniel Vegel)

Against a background of a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, there was a ‘warning strike’ at the MAN plant in Steyr (owned by VW), Upper Austria, against the threatened closure of the plant. Meanwhile, the rise in corona cases in Austria during the last half of October prompted further measures that will further impact on the already hard-hit economy – with a lockdown ‘light’ taking place during the month of November. And this is on top of the results of the Vienna city elections, which saw the far-right FPÖ plummet in votes, the SPÖ (social democrats) come out on top, and a largely new left grouping, LINKS, perform relatively well. The SPÖ has now started talks with the neoliberal, NEOS, about forming a coalition in the Vienna region.

In Steyr, 5,000 marched in a small town of 40,000 on 15 October – a massive demonstration for the town. Over two thousand jobs are on the line, as are many more in the area (many companies in the area produce supplies for MAN’s lorry production and would also be affected). The same day saw a public workplace meeting at Mayr-Melnhoff, in Lower Austria, where job cuts of 150 are due in a small town that depends on the jobs in the factory.

Corona crisis and jobs slaughter

The case of MAN is just an inkling of the job slaughter that is taking place right now. Job cuts are taking place on a great scale in industry, but also in tourism that is badly affected by the corona crisis. In 2020, Austria’s economy is expected to shrink by 6.8% according to the IMF, if there is no further lockdown. Around 194,000 people temporarily lost their jobs during the lockdown in spring, spiralling unemployment to 590,000 at a high point – a huge number in a small country of fewer than nine million people. Lasts summer and September, it seemed that the rise in unemployment due to the lockdowns had gone back – to 408,000 in September. This figure is still much higher than the 350,000 in 2019 and unemployment is now rising again. Companies that have put workers into short term labour schemes have switched to sackings. This was all before the second lockdown.

Meanwhile, the car industry had already been in crisis before corona, which is now used as a welcome excuse to get rid of people. Job cuts are taking place at the privatised Voest steelworks in Linz (up to 550 jobs), Swarovski in the Tyrol (1,000 jobs), furniture maker Umdasch in Lower Austria (300 jobs), manufacturer of parts of cars Mahle in Carinthia (130 jobs), Hotel Sacher (140 jobs), private rail company Westbahn (100 jobs) – and the list goes on. In many cases, as in the case of MAN, whole regions depend on the company for work. Closure of a factory can lead to a disaster for workers and the wider population in the region. This is especially true for industrial regions in Styria, Upper or Lower Austria, for example. A continued rise in corona infections or a second lockdown can further aggravate the situation. The scene is being set for turbulent times.

The mood is definitely starting to change, with some workers who are threatened with job losses resisting and others who work under high pressure demanding demand higher wages and better conditions. Brewery workers are preparing for struggle in the wage negotiations. Others in the health sector that are covered by different collective bargaining agreements can also play a role, particularly if the health sector is overwhelmed by the currently growing ‘second wave’. While some may be prepared to “tighten their belts” in a bad crisis there will be demands that companies and the rich pay their full share.

Corona and the government

The national ÖVP (conservative)-Green coalition tries to present itself as a government of political stability, navigating the corona crisis and alleviating its economic impact. It remains to be seen if this is successful. On 31 October they announced a lockdown light, which includes a curfew after 8 pm and restaurants, cafes and bars (and hotels) having to shut down for the month of November. Shops will remain open and so will schools for under 15-year-olds, and kindergartens. Services like hairdressers and physiotherapists will also be able to operate. So these are much lighter measures than during the first lockdown in March/April when infections were at a much lower level and spring was approaching. It is not clear if this lockdown light will have the desired effect.

Tourism is one of the big worries of the government at the moment. Austria is significantly dependent on tourism which was one of the main victims of the crisis. In Vienna, the number of tourists staying fell by 80% this summer. Other parts of the country were able to get some tourism from inside Austria, with Viennese staying in the countryside during the summer instead of going abroad. The Alpine regions now fear for the winter tourist season, with rising corona figures, and with many countries issuing travel warnings regarding Austria. The lockdown also seems to be an attempt to save the winter season, but it is not clear whether this will work. It seems that the lockdown includes an 80% bailout for the losses of those companies that have to shut down during the lockdown. The government-financed short time labour scheme will also be prolonged.

The budget the government announced in October is one without major cuts. It includes a huge bailout for companies because of the corona virus. In 2020, the deficit will be 30 billion euros, almost ten per cent of GDP, and that was before the costs of the second lockdown were priced in. A big part went into the government-financed short time labour scheme which did not prevent later job cuts though in a lot of cases. The question is if the money spent by the government is sufficient and how they will make workers’ pay later. Referring to the right-wing Austrian economist, Hayek, the finance minister Blümel (ÖVP) said that we will see, “Keynes in the short term, of course, but Hayek in the long term for sure.” This poses the question of big cuts to come at a later stage and how to fight them.

While only in office since January, the first small cracks have appeared in the government’s unity. The Greens in government have disillusioned a lot of people who voted for them. They did include climate-friendly measures in their government programme but corona changed everything and postponed some of these measures. The Greens have compromised a great deal to stay in government, for example on immigration. They originally had left “room to differ” with the ÖVP on this question, but when concrete questions were posed, like taking in asylum seekers from Moria, there is no room to differ – you are held accountable for what is done. The latest issue of the debate could be around the ÖVP’s desire to repeal a law that restored some pension cuts, a law passed with the majority support of all parties just before the September 2019 election.

On the question of health, there is widespread insecurity within the population of how to deal with corona. While conspiracy theories on the issue are on the rise, they are a minority compared to those who are worried about the virus, especially with rising figures. In Salzburg, the regional government has said that it is finding it difficult to get people to cooperate because of social media calls for boycotts. There were several demonstrations against the corona measures which saw the participation of neo-Nazis, the extreme right grouping, ‘Identitäre’, as well as FPÖ officials. The danger is that far-right groups and right-wing populists can benefit from what is still a minority mood that in a distorted way is a concern over democratic rights and expresses a lack of trust in a bourgeois government. It is understandable that people cannot “cooperate” indefinitely. Beyond that, these developments show that if there is not a strong workers’ movement which organises strenuously for the implementation of proper health and safety and for no attacks on workers’ pay and living conditions, moods like this can develop.

What the union leaders do – and what needs to be done

The union leaders still cling to ‘Social Partnership’ – the idea that bosses and workers can work together. In a crisis though, the bosses have less room to manoeuvre. While serious struggle can blunt attacks, fundamentally the employers have to see cuts through. In this situation “social partnership” ultimately means accepting the idea that “nothing can be done”, leading to a lowering of living standards for the working class. The union has announced a plan of action against the closure of VW-owned MAN trucks plant, although it is unclear which measures will follow.

To really fight the crisis, to reject closures and job cuts, a determined struggle is necessary. But also the aim cannot be just a settlement plan to ease the social impact. There is the danger that the union leaders can settle for that. Democratic decisions over what is achieved are necessary but also a widening of the struggle to all that are affected by job cuts and company closures. The unions should organise a demonstration that mobilises all affected workplaces in the country, as a first step to unite the struggles and to make clear that those in smaller companies who might feel isolated are not left alone. The demand should be for companies that cut jobs or close workplaces to be taken into public ownership under democratic control and management of the working class. Such a campaign could develop momentum and pose the question of a 24-hour general strike, as a further step. But to achieve these steps means building a movement that can challenge and change the trade union leadership.

While parts of the economy are in tatters, those workers who were “relevant to the system” and had to work while the lockdown, are being overworked, underpaid and ignored – this will lead undoubtedly to increased combativity. While resistance in the social and health sector was cut across with a three-year collective bargaining agreement, workers in other sectors that are “relevant to the system” might demand their share. Despite the three year agreement, there has been a small mobilisation by workers in the social sector.

Vienna elections

Against this background, the Vienna elections were significant – a test for all the major parties. The social democrats (SPÖ) came out on top, being seen as safeguarding ‘Red Vienna’ during the crisis. Vienna today, however, has little to do with the historic Red Vienna of the 1920s, when the ruling class’s fear of revolution resulted in some important reforms being introduced. Currently, no significant reforms are being offered in the city. Recent years have seen in various parts of the country all major parties participating in different austerity measures. Still, the SPÖ, right now, is seen as a party that gives stability in a time of crisis. Mayor Michael Ludwig promised to fight for every job, which is one of the reasons the SPÖ won the elections. If he keeps his promise remains to be seen.

In this election, all the parties, except for the smaller ones, and the ÖVP, lost votes. Voter participation dropped to 65% from 75% in 2015 (if those Viennese residents who are not entitled to vote are counted the participation is even below 50%). In absolute figures, the SPÖ lost over 27,000 votes. While the SPÖ did well in the workers’ districts, their vote compared to the past did shift to middle-class voters, as well. This can be seen by the lower vote the SPÖ got in the postal vote.

The SPÖ has begun coalition talks with the neoliberal NEOS (Das Neue Österreich und Liberales Forum/New Austria and Liberal Forum). The NEOS is smaller than the Greens in terms of votes and the SPÖ is fed up with the Greens on some environmental issues like the Greens resisting building highways in some of the outer districts.  Some SPÖ officials in these outer districts already supported talks with the NEOS before the Vienna SPÖ made this decision. The NEOS did not put their neoliberal economic programme to the fore in the election but focused on education where they made vague promises to improve the situation. They have a more liberal position on immigration than the ÖVP. Though their general neoliberal programme was pushed into the background in the election, it will have to be seen what they demand in the negotiations.

It is possible that some of those who voted SPÖ and are aware of what NEOS stand for will be quite angry at the SPÖ’s decision. While the Green leaders proved that they have no problem with implementing cuts, NEOS are at a completely different level of economic neoliberalism. One of their positions was that rental contracts should be limited to six months so that landlords can get rid of their tenants easier. It is alarming that the SPÖ announces they have common points of the programme with NEOS. The unions should be alert to any attacks and be ready to mobilise.  It is still possible though that the negotiations with the NEOS are a means to force more from the Greens in order to join a coalition and that the SPÖ will return to talks with the Greens.

The far-right FPÖ suffered a large election defeat; its vote fell to 50,000 votes from 250,000 votes five years ago. The FPÖ is still suffering massively from the impact of the May 2019 “Ibiza” corruption scandal. A video recording revealed that, prior to the FPÖ’s December 1917 entry into the national government, their then leader, HC Strache, was discussing with a supposed relative of a Russian oligarch what the FPÖ could do, once in power, in return for financial help in the October 2017 election. After being expelled from the FPÖ, Strache started his own party. In its first election campaign, the new party failed to reach the 5% necessary to enter the Vienna city council.

The Greens managed to raise their percentage in the recent elections, compared to 2015’s 11.8%. But they did not continue to gain from the mood on climate change that propelled them to 20% in Vienna in the 2019 general elections. They also lost votes in absolute figures compared with 2019. This is an expression of the disappointment of some who voted for the Greens because of how they have behaved in their government coalition with the ÖVP.

Chancellor Kurz’s ÖVP tried to take advantage of the gap created by the FPÖ’s crisis by playing on anti-refugee sentiments and racism to prop up their vote. In Vienna, this was only partially successful. The ÖVP did relatively well compared to their low vote of 9% in 2015 – they are now back up to 20%, as they were previously, and doubled their vote in absolute figures. But they did not manage to win over those workers who voted FPÖ in the past because in Vienna the ÖVP are still largely seen as the party of the bourgeoisie.

However, elections are just a snapshot in time. The threat of the far-right, whether in an existing or new party, remains intact. The conditions for the rise of the far-right remain present; a worsening economic situation, levels of class struggle that is still relatively low, and the lack of a workers’ party (the social democrats do not play this role anymore).

Class struggles are beginning to pick up though and the left has managed to make its first small steps in the direction of a new left formation. The left alliance, LINKS, did relatively well in the Vienna elections. It missed the 5% mark for the city-wide council level but gained 23 district councillors in 14 of Vienna’s 23 districts. There is a big responsibility on the shoulders of LINKS.

LINKS was not the only small electoral force that stood and gained up to two per cent. The satirical ‘Bierpartei’ (‘Beer party’) and the migrant party, ‘Soziales Österreich – SÖZ’ (possibly linked to the Turkish president Erdogan’s party, and aiming at mainly conservative migrants) did just as well. Although both electoral entities are not clearly positioned to the left, they still pitch to those voters looking for something different (the three lists, together, gained 6%). Among youth, they gained up to 12% of the vote.

LINKS will be put to the test

LINK’s result represents an initial success. For the first time in a long time, the left, with 2%, did better than the 1% the Communist Party (KPÖ) used to get in elections over the last 30 years (with the exception of Styria where the local Communist Party has a base). LINKS managed to get almost double the vote of the ‘ANDAS left’ coalition (which involved the KPÖ) in 2015. Now LINKS received 15,000 votes at the city level vote (ANDAS: 9,000 in 2015) and 19,500 votes at the district level (ANDAS: 12,000 in 2015). Yet it remains to be seen whether they can build a base outside of Vienna.

LINKS struggled to win votes in the bigger workers’ districts on the outskirts of Vienna. It did well in the inner districts and those workers’ districts that are already subject to some gentrification where the population is becoming more middle class.

The Bierpartei gained 2% all over Vienna. This could be because they were featured in the bourgeois media, while LINKS was less represented. But it could also be that LINKS cut themselves off from some workers by not consistently connecting the question of immigrants to a common struggle for more resources to cut across fears for jobs and housing etc. LINKS tends to use more academic language in relation to women’s or LGBTQ+ rights, and also suggesting quotas as one of the ways to fight oppression. Especially in times where jobs are scarce, this could have an alienating effect. Instead, the fight against oppression should be connected to, and not at the expense of, a common fight for better living conditions, jobs and for socialism.

The twenty-three seats LINKS holds in district councils mean that it will be put to the test. The question will be how LINKS will use these positions to build in the neighbourhoods and be involved in struggles while using the councils to show they are different from all the other parties. It is also a chance for building the party outside of Vienna, on a national level, and tap into the vacuum in the absence of a new workers’ party. LINKS should not accept the logic of capitalism when it comes to decisions in the district councils. While currently a small force, it is unlikely LINKS will be asked to join governing coalitions. But LINKS needs to make clear from the start that it will not form coalitions or alliances, formal or informal, with either the pro-capitalist SPÖ or Greens. In the councils, LINKS should vote on the merits of each issue.

Winning positions also poses the question of what will happen with the money that LINKS now gets from the state. District councillors do not get the same privileges as MPs, for example, in terms of money, but their groups on a council get subsidies. This calls for democratic control inside LINKS regarding state money, a democratic debate about what their councillors do, and the right of recall of elected positions by the LINK membership. District councillors should not have any privileges. Funds should be put into political work. At the same time, if LINKS starts depending on this money, there can be opportunist pressure to get re-elected for careerist reasons.

LINKS did start taking up some of burning issues, such as job losses, on public activities and street protests. They were present at most demonstrations in the recent past, including a demonstration of social workers, the MAN strike, and a demonstration for the refugees from Moria and Black Lives Matter demos. They did have an active campaign in the neighbourhoods. However, they have not begun to sink roots into the unions and workers’ movement yet. LINKS need to do this urgently, to start building in workplaces, schools and so on if it is to become a significant force.

In order to do so, LINKS urgently needs a socialist programme that deals with the crisis and explains that a socialist solution is necessary. This is especially urgent given the scale of the crisis that is now unfolding. LINKS should draw together and unite struggles that are taking place, especially those against job losses and closures. The crisis will be a big test for both LINKS and the trade union leaders. The union leaders often do not have anything to counter the logic of capitalism. They hold on to “social partnership” but a socialist approach is needed to be able to reject any cuts, job losses and closures. They need to demand that companies that cut jobs or wages or are in danger of being closed should be taken into public ownership under democratic control and management of the working class. This should not be done temporarily to privatise again later. And it should also include profitable parts of the companies. On this basis, plans could be made to change, if necessary, the companies’ products without harming the workforce. However unless such steps are a bridge towards the socialist transformation of society, such individual companies are continually threatened by the sea of capitalism surrounding them. This is why it is urgent that LINKS adopts a clearly socialist programme, and not just on paper.

New left formations can quickly come into existence and evaporate again if they hold on to a pro-capitalist programme. The example of SYRIZA, in Greece, is important. Once SYRIZA was in government it started giving in to the Troika and implementing cuts because the party did not dare break with capitalism. What is also needed urgently is to build an organised trade union opposition that manages to transform the unions into democratic and fighting bodies. Alongside this, the building of a workers’ party is required. This can draw together the struggles taking place and organise wider layers so that workers do not have to pay for the crisis, and to prepare the way for a socialist transformation.

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November 2020