Austria: Chancellor Kurz under pressure – the Left needs to mobilise and build a new workers’ party

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When Sebastian Kurz of the conservative ‘People’s Party’ (ÖVP) won the 2017 elections he was voted in as Chancellor as someone who stood for “change”. He had revamped his party, virtually renamed it, changed its party colour from black to turquoise, and presented himself as a young, 31-year-old, new leader.

His first coalition with the far-right ‘Freedom Party’ (FPÖ) had collapsed after less than 18 months when the FPÖ Vice-Chancellor H.C. Strache was filmed in Ibiza soliciting support from someone he thought was a Russian oligarch’s relative in return for political favours – the infamous “Ibiza scandal”. In the video, Strache was seen to hint that some companies in Austria, like the Novomatic international gambling concern, were “paying everybody”.

The ÖVP, at the time, emerged from the scandal relatively untouched though, while the FPÖ was kicked out of government. Kurz then, after a snap election, in January 2020, formed a coalition with the Green party, the first time the Austrian Green Party had ever been in the national government.

However, now the former prodigy Kurz is very much under pressure. He was questioned in 2020 in a parliamentary commission of enquiry that was supposed to investigate the Ibiza scandal on whether he was involved in a decision to make Thomas Schmid head of the state-owned ÖBAG – the body that manages the companies owned by the Austrian state.

Today, Kurz is charged with giving false testimony. The agency for tackling white-collar crime and corruption, the WKStA, had confiscated correspondence between him, Thomas Schmid and finance minister, Gernot Blümel, that clearly showed Kurz’s involvement in the Ibiza scandal.

Kurz had before proposed to scrap the WKStA and replace it with a new independent office of a Federal Prosecutor.

While Kurz insists that he had no intention of giving false testimony, it is now clear that he is no different from the rest of the political establishment – the change he promised was one actually deeper into corruption.

There are so many scandals now involving the ÖVP and Kurz’s entourage that it is hard to keep track.

The coalition government had been under strain before. The ÖVP had in the past used racism, particularly around the issue of migration and asylum seekers, to divert the attention of the masses from their problems, which worked successfully, for a while, during its coalition with the FPÖ. This is harder now with the Greens in the coalition, as they are under pressure from their voter base, which is not happy with the government pushing through deportations.

The coalition’s big task had been the fight against climate change, and this had been postponed though due to the pandemic. The Greens had replaced their minister of health with Wolfgang Mückstein, a health professional.

Whether the coalition will survive now is up to whether Kurz will be able to keep his promise that “life will be back to normal” by summer 2021. Whether this is possible depends on factors like whether any virus mutations can be kept in check.

While support for the People’s Party has fallen from a high at the beginning of the pandemic of 48% to 36% now, this is still way ahead of the social democrats (SPÖ) on around 23% and the FPÖ with 18%. However, the last polls were conducted before Kurz was charged. Up to now, the fall in the ÖVP’s standing was mainly due to people being unhappy about the government’s management of the pandemic. Support for Kurz could well recover though if the effects of the vaccination of broader parts of the population and a successful opening up are felt.

Pandemic recedes

As the pandemic recedes to the background, the spotlight shifts more onto Kurz and his scandals now. The bosses, at this point, might still be hesitant to make cuts – in order not to harm any recovery. But it is possible that the government will begin to use cuts to make up for the money they poured into the economy during the pandemic. One thing that is being discussed is a model of unemployment benefit that declines – more at the beginning and less the longer you are unemployed. Given the fact that the average time that people are unemployed was prolonged because of the pandemic, this is a real threat for workers and the unemployed.

The fact that the government is still in place is due to the weakness of the opposition – the FPÖ in its current state is not a reliable government partner for the ÖVP and the ruling class. The SPÖ would be willing to enter a government, but it was Kurz’s starting point that he would break with the tradition of ‘grand coalitions’ between the ÖVP and the SPÖ.

Both SPÖ and FPÖ are troubled by conflicts about their leaderships. In the FPÖ, former minister of interior, Herbert Kickl, might now replace leader Norbert Hofer (or provoke a split). Kickl stands for a more radical course, with orientation to the anti-covid demos, while Hofer represents those forces in the FPÖ who want to appear more acceptable in order to re-enter into government. It is very unlikely that an FPÖ led by Kickl would be acceptable to the ruling class as a government party. The fact that the Kickl might take over the FPÖ and might find fertile ground amongst a certain layer shows that the far-right threat posed by the FPÖ is far from over. (Editors’ note: The article was published just before news broke that Hofer resigned as FPÖ-leader.)

Parts of the ÖVP might be willing to get rid of Kurz and his new colours. It is not clear how firm his support in his own party is. So far, he was guaranteeing election wins for them. At the same time, he was often at odds with parts of the Catholic Church and in conflict with the local people’s party in the Tyrol who were resistant against regulations during the pandemic. . From the point of view of parts of the ÖVP, it has not yet fully exhausted the coalition with the Greens. One possibility is a coalition between ÖVP and Greens without Kurz. Another is Kurz calling new elections to shut down the parliamentary enquiry.

But then what? Kurz and the ÖVP do not have an absolute majority to rule on their own – he had flirted with this idea in the past. The neo-liberal NEOS (partly a split off from the ÖVP) are a potential partner, but it is not certain that combination will have a majority. Neither do SPÖ, Greens and NEOS have a majority. At the moment, NEOS and the FPÖ are beneficiaries from the scandals – but not the SPÖ, which is currently at a very low 23%, albeit slightly above their 21.2% vote in 2019’s election.

Calling new elections to shut down the enquiry might not be necessary though, after all, for Kurz – as the Greens have indicated they would probably not vote to support an extension of the parliamentary investigatory committee’s work beyond July. The most likely option for Kurz might be just to sit tight and wait for things to calm down again.

So the ruling class is lacking alternative options but the working class needs a political alternative, as well. While the SPÖ used to be, at the base, a workers’ party up to the collapse of Stalinism in the late 1980s, the working class has no political party of its own, at the moment.

LINKS

There are first initial steps towards a new left formation by LINKS, which won 23 council seats in the Vienna elections in October 2020. However, LINKS is still very much confined to the Vienna area – it urgently needs to change that if it wants to put its stamp on the political map. LINKS has now started a campaign for a 30-hour working week with full pay compensation and sharing out the work. This is a step in the right direction – addressing working-class issues.

LINKS still has some way to go in order to lay the basis for a party in which the working class can organise though. It needs to start building an opposition inside the trade unions to turn them into democratic and combative organisations. It has taken initiatives for organising solidarity for the struggle of workers against mass redundancies at the VW-owned MAN plant in Steyr, Upper Austria. This needs to be developed further, and not only in terms of showing solidarity but making suggestions on how the struggle can be extended to other parts of the working class and how it can be won.

There is a mood now for people to go out on the street and protest – after almost 8 months of lockdown anything could be used as an excuse to protest. In June 2020, a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest attracted 50,000 people – an indication of people yearning to go back onto the streets. The same could happen now if LINKS or the trade union leadership mobilised a demonstration against the government – while at the same time taking safety precautions to keep people on the protest safe from covid.

At the moment, resistance against Kurz on the streets is left to the anti-covid demonstrations which are dominated by the far right. This is a danger that should be countered with a left alternative that, at the same time demands better pay for health staff, more resources for the health sector, as well as nationalisation of the pharma industry under democratic control and management by the working class.

By mobilising broadly and organising opposition inside the trade unions for a combative approach instead of the trade union leaders’ tame social partnership approach, LINKS could reach out to layers it has not reached, so far. A demonstration against Kurz could also be linked to the struggle of the MAN workers in Steyr and their demands.

The struggle against corruption would need to address that it is a side effect of scarcity and need (as during the pandemic, in terms of masks, tests, protective gear and now vaccines). We need a socialist planned economy with the means of production in public ownership that develops production according to need, not profit. At the same time, a key part of the struggle against corruption is for representatives to be regularly democratically elected, subject to recall and not earn more than an average workers’ wage. To win support, a socialist movement needs to link together the need to break with capitalism and laying the basis for corruption to be ended. The situation of need could be ended by democratically planning the use of the resources of the whole world – in a global socialist society.

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