Austria: Success for Communist Party in local elections continues in Salzburg

Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ) logo (Wikimedia Commons)

The Communist Party (KPÖ) in Austria has seen a couple of successes in local and regional elections in the last two and a half years. The first was in Graz, Austria’s second largest city,  where they now hold the mayor’s position, as part of a coalition with the pro-capitalist Social Democrats and Greens and then in last year’s regional elections in Salzburg

Last year’s 21% vote in the city of Salzburg in the regional elections has now been topped up to 23.1% in the 10th March city council elections. On top of that, the KPÖ candidate Kay Michael Dankl reached the run-off elections for mayor, with 28% just narrowly behind Social Democrat candidate Benhard Auinger’s 29.4%. The ruling conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), meanwhile has been halved and the right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) only slightly increased to just over 10%.

This is all the more remarkable as nationally the right wing FPÖ currently leads the opinion polls with 28%, with the potential prospect of an FPÖ-led government after the coming general election. With the run off elections in Salzburg in two weeks, the EU-Elections in June and general elections on September 29, the discussion about the KPÖ’s result could potentially propel the discussion about Marxist ideas back into the spotlight, as had been the case since Elke Kahr’s victory in Graz in 2022 (see here: Austrian workers struggle to defend living standards as political instability worsens and Graz Austria’s second largest city “on the brink of bankruptcy”)

These results have had a big impact in Austria and give a real opportunity to begin to build a genuine socialist force in the country.

On the back of the 2023 Salzburg regional elections, left winger Andreas Babler had been elected chair of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), fuelling hopes for workers’ friendly politics. While Babler has since tried to present himself as trying to unite the different wings of the SPÖ and thereby softening his previous more radical stance, the KPÖ victory could temporarily stabilise his position again. This is because the SPÖ’s apparatus around Vienna’s SPÖ mayor Michael Ludwig might need him as a left face. Babler issued a press statement supporting Bernhard Auinger, Dankl’s opponent in the Salzburg mayoral run-off election. Auinger himself has already labelled the KPÖ’s programme on housing (such as lowering rents) as “unrealistic”.

The dynamics of EU elections and general elections mean that the KPÖ could be propelled further into the spotlight on the back of the good result in Salzburg. The Graz result in 2022 had still been labelled as an oddity and that Graz had always been different (where the KPÖ had continuously engaged in local elections with its councillors only taking a worker’s wage and campaigning continuously on housing). Salzburg could have a more national impact though. 

The potential for a left nationwide force in the elections to poll well is there. Currently the KPÖ polls only 3% nationally, up from 0.7% in 2019, but this could increase and the threshold of entering parliament is currently 4%. In the meantime, the Bierpartei (Beer party), which is more of a protest vehicle / comedy style party, is polling at 7%, and is also pulling in protest votes. Babler’s Social Democrats are polling at 23%, quite a long way behind the FPÖ.

The Salzburg election was further confirmation that it is possible to beat the FPÖ with a programme that addresses social issues and people’s concerns. This is also reflected in the fact that the vacuum was clearly felt in many other places in the Salzburg region where the KPÖ did not run and where the FPÖ was able to make gains.

The KPÖ won votes primarily with its housing policy in times of inflation. Dankl has placed even more emphasis than Elke Kahr in Graz on presenting himself as a “nice communist from next door”. He has made it clear that the KPÖ relies on a social work approach instead of organising and mobilising people who are unhappy about the social conditions.

Run off mayoral election 

Dankl is now in the run-off election for the mayor’s seat, and it is probably unlikely that he will win. A good result for Dankl in the run-off election would be a strong signal, not just for Salzburg, but for Austria, as a whole. That is why we are calling on people to vote for Dankl in the run-off election, but with a warning: without a majority in the local council, the pressure for a coalition or political agreement with pro-capitalist parties such as the Greens or the SPÖ is even greater than it already is. And, without a movement behind him, the pressure on Dankl to adapt quickly is certainly enormous.

The KPÖ youth organisation Junge Linke (Young Left), and Dankl himself, originally come from the Greens. In 2017 the Green party kicked out their youth organisation Junge Grüne which renamed themselves afterwards as Junge Linke and joined the KPÖ after its Graz victory. This is the reason for the plus in KPÖ+, the party’s campaigning banner. 

However in Salzburg the KPÖ+ has even fewer roots in the trade unions and workplaces than in Graz. The KPÖ+ now has an important responsibility: if it disappoints the expectations placed in it, the KPÖ+ can lose votes again and the FPÖ can gain more ground again.

Particularly in view of the global crisis and the escalating contradictions of capitalism, a socialist programme and a movement that fights for the KPÖ’s demands such as decent and cheap public housing in order to implement improvements are needed. With its now ten Salzburg council seats, the KPÖ+ should not enter into coalitions with the SPÖ and the Greens but, should Dankl win the run-off election, the KPÖ+ should decide on how they will vote on every individual issue. 

The KPÖ should propose points of their programme for implementation and thus force the other parties’ hand. At the same time, it should mobilise those affected to exert pressure for public housing, a reduction in rents, expansion of public transport, an increase in minimum income, etc.

Babler’s election, along with the growth in support for the KPÖ+ and the Bierpartei. are an expression of the search for a political alternative – and they will be tested out in practice. The KPÖ+ must seize this opportunity and make an offer to the unorganised, activists from struggles, supporters of Babler and activists of the Bierpartei. The Social Democrats are still dominated by pro-capitalists and have lost a significant amount of their working class roots. What is needed is a workers’ party in which working people, young people, the unemployed and pensioners can organise themselves. But one that also has space for organisations and that can organise and coordinate struggles and be a place where the programme, demands and methods are discussed.

A first important next step would be a joint activist conference of KPÖ, Babler supporters, activists from class struggles, and activists from the Beer Party, where joint action can be discussed and decided. This could include: no support for coalitions with procapitalist parties, joint campaigns such as on affordable housing, building links and campaigning on trade union and workplace issues, building a movement and resistance to possible attacks by a new government after the national elections etc.

Members of Sozialistische Offensive in Salzburg have supported a vote for  KPÖ+ and Dankl in Salzburg but also fight to build a workers’ party that has a clear socialist programme. We organised a stall on the weekend of the election as part of developing our public activities in Salzburg. It was clearly noticeable that the Salzburg city elections took place in a time of increased class struggle, with German trains running late because of the German train drivers’ strike and Austrian delivery workers striking on the Thursday before and the Tuesday after the elections. The polarisation between rich and poor is becoming more pronounced and social and workplace issues sharper. We found Austrian rail workers were discussing shortage of staff on the trains. Later in the evening we held a meeting that discussed our proposals on what the KPÖ should do next to build a movement after its election success.

Regardless of the outcome of the run-off election, the KPÖ+ must use its positions both as a campaigning platform on immediate issues and to promote a socialist programme and explain what real socialism could look like. A break with capitalism and the transfer of key enterprises into public ownership under the democratic control of the working people is necessary to solve the problems that capitalism creates. Without such a socialist programme, there is a danger of missing opportunities and repeating, albeit on a smaller scale, the mistakes of parties like the SPÖ, which merely administer capitalism, abandon their supporters in times of crisis and massively lose support as a result or even collapse, like the PCI in Italy and the PS in France did.


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March 2024