Austria: Electoral success for Salzburg Communist Party, while crisis deepens for Social Democrats

Andreas Babler, 'left' candidate for Austrian social democratic party leadership contest (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, 2012)

In Austria, like in other countries, the multiple crises of capitalism have led to an increase in instability, speed of events and polarisation. It is hard to keep up with events these days. 

With the country’s nine million inhabitants facing inflation running above the European Union’s average, the cost of living crisis has added to a deep loss in trust in the established parties. One result is that the Communist Party (KPÖ), seemingly out of the blue, won 11.7% in the April 23 regional elections in Salzburg, landing them four seats in a regional parliament. In the previous election, five years ago, the KPÖ got just over 1,000 votes (O.4%).

 At the same time, there is the deep crisis of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), reflected in its current leadership referendum, which runs until May 10th. Meanwhile the right wing populism of the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) saw it gain votes in regional election after regional election, and the party is now on top, with nearly 30% in national opinion polls. 

‘KPÖ Plus’ electoral success in Salzburg

In the Salzburg region the KPÖ stood in an alliance called “KPÖ Plus”, which includes the “Junge Linke” (“Young Left”), the former youth organisation of the Greens who were previously expelled from the Green party. In Salzburg city, KPÖ Plus won more than 21% and was in second place, ahead of the FPÖ. The background to this is the rising cost of living, which is particularly high in Salzburg, especially housing costs. The KPÖ Plus in Salzburg, under the influence of the Junge Linke, copied two elements from the KPÖ Graz, which in 2021 became the largest party and won the mayoral position in what is Austria’s second biggest city. The KPÖ Graz reached almost 30% of the vote after consistently campaigning around the issue of rents and housing, and gained prestige by their elected officials keeping only an average wage and donating the rest of their official salaries. This makes it seen as fundamentally different from all other parties. The governing parties in  Salzburg were punished, including the Green Party, and the conservative People’s Party, for amongst other things, the 8.6% increase in the benchmark for private tenants’ rent, this year. As rents were a key issue for the campaign of KPÖ Plus, it is not surprising that many of those who were angry about this chose to vote KPÖ Plus. 

Yet, the “Graz Model”, which was the model for the campaigning work of KPÖ Plus in Salzburg, does have its limitations. They work in a coalition with the pro-capitalist SPÖ and the Greens and have already pledged to stick to the budget limits. This is dangerous, as there is a budget crisis in Graz, mainly inherited from the People’s Party rule, up until 2021, and also because of the general situation of the finances of city governments. This has led to KPÖ Graz not hiring new staff to fill job vacancies arising from workers retiring – a form of job cuts without sacking people. 

Yet, KPÖ Graz was able to limit rent rises in the public housing sector to 2%. In Vienna, for example, the SPÖ city government raised rents by the full 8.6% that the national government had allowed. If the budget situation gets so tight that cuts are looming, the KPÖ Graz should mobilise the population to force the national government to supply sufficient funding to it and other local governments. Such a campaign needs to be prepared now. In times of crisis the fight for reforms and to defend living standards requires a willingness to confront capitalism, to both demand concessions and to build broad support for a break with capitalism. 

The KPÖ Plus in Salzburg, because of the influence of the Junge Linke, has a slightly different approach on some questions. For example, they do raise the need for a new left party in Austria on a national level, potentially beyond the KPÖ. They also want to force improvements by building pressure from below through campaigning. That is a very positive element of their approach. They also said they would not go into a coalition in Salzburg but remain in opposition. But they did not rule out coalitions with pro-capitalist parties, in principle. 

If KPÖ Plus manages to also get a good vote in the general elections, which are currently due next year, they would soon come under pressure to join or support capitalist coalitions (like the SPÖ and Greens) to prevent an FPÖ led government. Therefore they need to be clear that they would not be part of such a government but would only support individual measures, on an issue by issue basis, while explaining what type of government would be in the interest of workers and the oppressed. 

SPÖ crisis and leadership contest

The success of KPÖ Plus in Graz could potentially shift the political debate in Austria to the left, with the media and parties focusing on issues like rents instead of the parties debating how best to copy the FPÖ’s racism. Immediately it can also impact the current contests for the SPÖ leadership.

Once a mass force, with over three quarters of a million members, the SPÖ has for some time lost a great deal of popularity among the working class. Up to the 1970s, it was still a party with a base in the working class but with a bourgeois leadership that was able to gain improvements on the basis of the post war economic upswing. However, the SPÖ, since the collapse of Stalinism, has presided over three decades of neoliberal cuts when in government. It has now lost each of the last three regional elections despite being in opposition. While they did take up the cost of living crisis the SPÖ’s opposition was not seen as creditable, partly because of their doubling of energy prices in Vienna through the publicly owned energy company, Wien Energie, they controlled. A result was that, since last summer, the SPÖ lost the leading position it had in the opinion polls to the right wing Freedom Party.

A result of this has been a months’ long struggle for the party leader’s position. Now there are three candidates competing against each other in a membership vote that could become a crucial test. The governor of Burgenland, Hans-Peter Doskozil, stands for a populist course that gives in to racist sentiments. The current party chairwoman, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, represents the bureaucratic leadership of the SPÖ.

Andreas Babler is considered a party leftist and was elected mayor in his hometown of Traiskirchen, mainly campaigning on a combination of social measures and anti-racism. He managed this despite Traiskirchen having the largest refugee camp in Austria. He did not give in to racism but put the blame for the disastrous conditions in the camp on the racist policies of the government. 

Babler demands, among other things, a 32-hour working week with full pay – without, however, explaining that this has to be fought for through movement on the streets and in the workplaces. However, the fact that Andreas Babler, like Doskozil, is in favour of a “traffic light” coalition of SPÖ, Greens and the neoliberal NEOs, is an indication that a truly fundamental change in policy is unlikely, even with an SPÖ led by him. 

Just before the voting started, one poll put Rendi-Wagner in the lead, with 49 percent of the members’ votes, Doskozil on 20 percent of the vote and Babler 18 percent. The initial announcement of Babler’s candidacy prompted, within days, 9,000 people to join the SPÖ. His candidacy has raised hopes among a layer that the SPÖ will shift to the left. At the same time, the electoral success of the KPÖ Plus in Salzburg shows the great potential for a party to the left of the current social democracy.

If Babler wins the election for the party chairmanship, he will face questions similar to those faced by Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party after his election as leader. With the pro-capitalist apparatus and the majority of MPs also pro-capitalist, at all levels, no policy in the interests of the working class will be possible. He would have to mobilise his supporters on the basis of a clear left programme, for a complete transformation of the party, and be prepared to break with it if he wants to implement his positions.

Fertile ground for a new left party 

It is more likely, however, that Babler will not win the election for chair of the SPÖ’s. In that case, he and his supporters should press ahead with the formation of a new force, together with the KPÖ and other left-wing forces. Babler has indicated that he would remain in the party even if he loses to Doskozil. But his supporters should not be held back by that. It is true that currently Doskozil has some popularity, but once in government he is unlikely to stop the SPÖ’s decline. While for years the Freedom Party has taken advantage of the crises in the two old traditional parties, it is clear now that there is more than a chance to build a new left force, as even the bourgeois polling companies and experts concede. This means that initiatives, be it from Babler’s supporters, KPÖ members or other activists, can start to lay the foundations for the formation of a new workers’ party. In view of the multiple capitalist crises and increasing class struggles in Austria, there is a growing search for a way out. This is why we need a party that consistently represents workers’ interests and wants to initiate socialist change of society by breaking decisively with capitalism.

 

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