Communist Party wins council elections in Austria’s second-largest city

KPO (Austrian communmist party) supporters on a demonstration in 2018 (Photo: Haeferl/Wikimedia Commons)

The Communist Party in Austria, KPÖ, came first in the recent Graz city elections, with 29% of the vote (34,000 votes). This sensational result for the Communist Party in Graz (KPÖ Graz) is a result of the consistent work by the KPÖ in Graz, a city in the Austrian federal state of Styria. The KPÖ has been able to position itself as a socially-progressive party based on the work (especially regarding housing) of Ernst Kaltenegger in the early 2000s. “Some people make promises a few weeks before the elections. We have been there every day for years for the people, especially for the poorest,” the KPÖ’s main candidate Elke Kahr said. 

For years, the KPÖ’s elected representatives have been paying two-thirds of their politicians’ salaries into a fund that is used for social programmes. In its election programme, the CP demanded, among other things, a minimum wage of 15 euros an hour, a reduction in working hours with full pay and a sharing out of the work, and the creation of jobs through public investment. The KPÖ Graz won votes from all parties in these elections, but especially from non-voters. 

Graz is the second biggest city in Austria with just under 400,000 inhabitants. Historically, Graz had been a stronghold of the social democrats, SPÖ, but this was weakened from the 1970s onwards. From 2003 until now the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) had been the largest party and provided the Mayor, Siegfried Nagl, who recently had been in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the city government. But Nagl had to step down after his party lost almost 12% and almost halved in total numbers. The ÖVP under Nagl was perceived as elitist.

A socialist programme 

A wave of anti-communist propaganda is now being poured over people’s heads in the bourgeois media as a reaction to the election result – raising all the ghosts and crimes of Stalinism. The media also don’t tire of repeating that Styria will not really be communist now or break with capitalism, despite the KPÖ’s electoral victory. They also point out the weaknesses of the KPÖ Styria though. One of those weaknesses is that the KPÖ is perceived almost like a charity organisation – handing out money to people in need. While it is definitely better the money from the KPÖ’s social fund goes to people in need rather than into politicians’ pockets, the KPÖ fails to organise and mobilise working-class people behind a fighting programme to fight for its demands and also for a break with capitalism. 

At the same time as not raising the socialist goal of breaking with capitalism, the KPÖ Graz does not really have an answer to the bourgeois media’s attempt to discredit the idea of socialism by referring to the former Eastern bloc – except by saying “we just want to help the people”. Now the sudden media campaign exploiting the public support for the Belarusian regime by Werner Murgg, a KPÖ MP in the Styria federal state parliament, shows why a clear position against both Stalinism and its successor capitalist regimes is so necessary. At best, the KPÖ leaders do not really have an idea of what Stalinism was fundamentally based upon. They do not see that, despite being non-capitalist, the Stalinist regimes were repressive ones run by a privileged caste without any form of the workers’ control and management that are necessary to build a genuinely socialist society. Nor can they explain how these regimes developed, why they represented a break with the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin and how Stalinism prepared the basis for the reintroduction of capitalism into what was mistakenly called ‘socialist’ states. Certainly, the former USSR and the other states were not capitalist, but they were not workers’ democracies moving towards genuine socialist societies. It is necessary to counter these attacks of the bourgeois media and to use the opportunity to explain how a real democratic socialist society could look like. It is clear that every mistake of the KPÖ Graz in its practical politics will be used by the bourgeois parties and media to discredit “communism”. 

This is why the question of what happens next is important for building a real strong socialist force in Graz and Austria. The KPÖ Graz bears a great responsibility. However, it is possible that Elke Kahr will become mayor with an alliance with the SPÖ and the Greens. This holds great dangers. The leaderships of both the SPÖ and the Greens are firmly rooted in capitalism and thus also its constraints. The fact that the Greens are currently hesitant to say whether they will elect Kahr is rumoured to be down to the ÖVP pressuring their federal coalition partner. This is another sign of how unreliable the Green support would be both because the ÖVP currently has leverage over them and because they work within capitalism.

Therefore, the KPÖ Graz should not enter into a coalition with either of them but should set out concrete proposals based on its programme and publicly call on the SPÖ and the Greens to support those proposals. This does not mean doing it in the form of an ultimatum, the KPÖ should engage in a debate, but they should not let themselves be taken hostage by the political leadership of these parties, who basically accept the existing capitalist system. Instead, the KPÖ needs, while fighting for reforms, to continually point out and explain the limits of the capitalist system. 

As soon as there is a crisis and the economic room to manoeuvre shrinks or disappears, how will the KPÖ keep their promises or avoid having to implement cuts? – unless the KPÖ mobilizes its voters, and more, to build pressure on the federal government to provide enough money. This was the strategy of the socialist Liverpool City Council in Britain in the mid-1980s against Thatcher which succeeded in winning important concessions. But it is likely that the ÖVP led federal government could, like Thatcher, attempt to cut off the money flow to the city of Graz. The KPÖ would have to use its position to try to widen the struggle throughout Austria while explaining that a break with capitalism is necessary to implement and secure their demands in the long run.

The challenge facing the KPÖ Graz is not to make the same mistakes as other (new) left parties in Europe – namely, to achieve electoral successes and then lose support because their policies that are oriented to capitalist constraints (see, for example, Syriza in Greece – their succumbing to the blackmail of the troika and their refusal to break with capitalism led to a big drop in Greek living standards and a severe setback for the workers’ movement). The KPÖ should make clear demands on the SPÖ and the Greens to back pro-worker policies if their leaderships do not support them. It should campaign for these demands, including amongst the rank and file supporters of the SPÖ and the Greens, as part of a wider campaign. After all, their leadership is not willing to antagonize the ruling class by implementing policies that conflict with the interests of the ruling class. Such an alliance would have to be willing to mobilize the working class to fight for the money to implement these reforms (or to defend them). As with Syriza, this depends on the willingness to break with capitalism and fight for a socialist programme.

 Upper Austria

On the same day as the city elections in Graz, regional elections took place in Upper Austria, the third largest region in Austria. While the main establishment parties were stagnating, a new party of vaccine sceptics (“MFG – Menschen-Freiheit-Grundrechte” – People, Freedom, Rights) won 6.23% of the vote and entered the regional parliament. Austria has been painstakingly slow to increase the vaccination rate recently, especially in parts of Upper Austria. This is mainly down to a lack of trust in the capitalist institutions and the pharma industry. This mood is not channelled by the workers’ movement into organised resistance and, instead, the political right has stepped in.

The MFG has picked up some support from vaccination sceptics in Upper Austria that would not vote for the FPÖ. But the MFG is likely to be unstable and short-lived since its existence depends on Covid 19. In a way, it reflects the confusion and heterogeneity of the vaccination opponents and corona deniers. In their programme, they take up issues beyond the vaccination issue that affect small self-employed and SMEs. The second most important reason given by their voters as a motive for their election was that they wanted a voice against the established parties, formerly classic FPÖ terrain because of the vacuum on the left.

However, the FPÖ gambled away this anti-establishment bonus through its renewed participation in government (both in federal and regional government in Upper Austria). The FPÖ was also caught in the balancing act between, “we want to co-govern in Upper Austria”, and the federal FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl’s alignment with the vaccination sceptics and conspiracy theorists. In addition, due to the pandemic, the issue of migration was not as present as during the previous regional election in 2015, when the FPÖ won a landslide due to the refugee wave. The 6% MFG received expresses the loss of confidence in the existing parties, but also a potential of ex-FPÖ voters for whom the FPÖ is no longer electable and who are “homeless”. The example of the KPÖ in Graz shows that if there is a consistent left-wing force, the right-wing is weakened and divisions among the working class can be avoided. In Graz, the vaccination issue was more to the background and social policy in the foreground. 

The KPÖ also made small progress in Upper Austria, with several councillors won in different cities. The other left-wing force that also stood in Upper Austria, Wandel (“change” – a small left-leaning organisation that also stood in previous elections and had been in alliances with the KPÖ and Links), also made some steps forward. In Linz, for example, Wandel won a councillor (Wandel and the KPÖ together won 4.9% of the vote in the city). 

For the other parties, both elections were less glorious – the ÖVP lost heavily in Graz and, while their percentage in Upper Austria rose, their actual vote fell; but the FPÖ lost in both despite its anti-vaccination stance. The Greens won slightly but made relatively small gains despite the depth of the climate crisis. But they are in the federal government with the ÖVP and have increasingly alienated some of their voters. The social democrats (SPÖ) stagnated around 18% in Upper Austria but their actual vote fell and they were decimated to below 10% in Graz. Federally, the SPÖ is torn in debates inside the party. The SPÖ Burgenland, on the border with Hungary, acted in a populist manner by demanding more restrictions on asylum seekers, while, at the same time, as raising the minimum wage in the public sector in Burgenland. While federally the ÖVP is holding up relatively well, despite the scandals surrounding their previous government coalition with the FPÖ, there is definitely anger at the government bubbling up, which is most obviously expressed now in the KPÖ result in Styria and also the growth of vaccine sceptics. 

For a new workers’ party – what next beyond Graz?

Links – a small new left formation mainly present in Vienna – had been able to win a few seats in the Vienna city council elections in 2020, and the upward trend for the left continued with the Graz result. Links and the KPÖ worked together in Vienna in the municipal elections. However, this also means that the policies of the KPÖ have an influence on the policies of some of the Left.

The KPÖ Styria is taking a different course than the federal KPÖ; it is better at taking up the immediate worries and fears of the working class but does not raise wider issues. The SPÖ’s stagnation poses the question of what possibilities there are at the federal level to start to build a new party that goes beyond Graz or Vienna and aims to be more than the KPÖ and a few others.

This is also linked to preventing a Graz city government under KPÖ leadership from being isolated and to being able to gather national support so it can fend off attacks on it by the bourgeois parties, the federal government or the bourgeois media. The KPÖ Graz also has a responsibility to take steps in this direction, together with Links and others.

Such a party can take up some policies from the KPÖ Graz when it comes to the issues with which people can be won over – as functionaries, only taking an average worker’s wage, for example, or focusing on social issues. However, the KPÖ Graz has weaknesses, namely that they do not link demands for social improvements with the need for socialist change. There is a reference to ‘communism’ in its programme but changing society is postponed to ‘some day’ and the goal is not clearly differentiated from Stalinism. In practice, this is a division into a minimum programme and a maximum programme. This can be fatal in the long run, because without this connection one is forced to accept the capitalist limitations. The fact that Die Linke (Left Party) in Germany suffered a huge setback in the recent German federal elections because of its orientation toward a possible coalition with the social-democratic SPÖ and the Greens, and was almost thrown out of the Bundestag, should also be a warning.

A new party would have to be ready to initiate and organize struggles and movements of the working class, and the KPÖ Graz hardly does that. Instead, it has a strongly social-worker approach of providing help but not mobilising people to fight for change. It relies on “statesmanlike” behaviour and “responsible” politics and on alliances with parties that implement pro-capitalist policies. Links was able to mobilize 2000 people in Vienna to a demonstration on Afghanistan in August 2021 – this shows the potential that is there to initiate protests if bold initiatives are taken.

The general mood at the moment is favourable for building a new left force. The Fridays for Futures demonstrations on 24 September showed that the issue of climate change is a burning one for many people. At the same time, the Greens can only profit from this mood to a limited extent.  Greens participation in government has shown that their scope for real change is limited, as they rely on pro-capitalist policies and a coalition with the ÖVP. Many people are disappointed by the spineless policies of the Greens on the issue of asylum, for example. The SPÖ, in turn, is not really succeeding in benefiting from this.

The next few months can see an increased level of class struggle. Rising inflation and the fallout from Kurzarbeit (which meant pay cuts for many workers during the pandemic) increases the pressure for higher pay claims. The metalworkers demand 4.5% and are very likely heading for a conflict with the employers. For October, a demonstration of kindergarten teachers has been announced. They have been under intense strain during the pandemic, along with health and education workers. Links and the KPÖ Graz could take up all this and connect it, possibly with joint mobilisation calls as a step towards building a broader movement. 


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October 2021