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Austria: social democrats return to power

THE GENERAL elections in Austria on 1 October saw the surprising victory of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). After being in opposition since 2000, it became the largest party again, with 35.3% of the vote. The reason for this was the strong demand by big parts of the population to get rid of the ÖVP (People’s Party) Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, who carried out brutal neo-liberalism with Napoleon-like arrogance. The ÖVP’s vote fell from 2,076,833 in 2002 to 1,616,493. Two racist parties – the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) – together got just over 15%. The Austrian section of the CWI also stood, as Socialist LeftParty-List against Capitalism and Racism.

The ruling ÖVP’s election campaign claimed that everything was wonderful in Austria. But in the last six years the government has implemented attacks on pensions, the health service and education. Work is increasingly casualised, women driven back into the home, and youth out of the universities. This was combined with the influential state TV becoming even more uncritically pro-government. A huge number of public jobs have gone to government stooges or been created for them. Pre-election opinion polls showed a victory for the ÖVP, but the wish to get rid of this government was overwhelming, something that was seen in June 2003, when one million workers held a one-day strike against Schüssel’s pension cuts.

The evening of 1 October saw a surprised SPÖ chairman when Alfred Gusenbauer realised that his party had emerged as the strongest. But the SPÖ is a weak winner, as it lost 128,513 votes from the last election in 2002. The SPÖ’s vote was stable in rural areas but it lost votes in its traditional working-class areas of support. Forty per cent of their voters just wanted to get rid of Schüssel. Among pensioners the SPÖ was the strongest party, but 75% under the age of 30 voted for other parties. And, wherever it is in power, the SPÖ’s politics are hardly any different from those of the ÖVP. On Vienna council, where the SPÖ has an absolute majority, it has started privatising the entire social service sector. Health and care for elderly and disabled people are run for profit not need. In Carinthia, the SPÖ went into coalition with the federal state governor, the far-right BZÖ (ex-FPÖ) extremist, Jörg Haider.

Another surprising result was that the new BZÖ party just made it into parliament. The BZÖ was created out of the split from the FPÖ by Haider and FPÖ government ministers in spring 2005. The BZÖ has no real rank and file but used a lot of money from government ministries and Haider’s governorship in Carinthia to promote its candidates.

The election campaign confirmed the analysis of the SLP (CWI Austria) that the BZÖ was not a ‘liberal’ split-off from the FPÖ. There was a disgusting race between the BZÖ and FPÖ about who is more racist. Asylum seekers were generally presented as liars who live in luxury. Both parties argued for massive deportations. The FPÖ polled 11%. This was far less than the 26.9% it won in 1999, but up on its 10% vote in 2002. After the split in 2005, many commentators declared the FPÖ finished. SLP explained that the split would lead to an even more right-wing turn by the FPÖ, with the fascists inside it getting to the centre of the party. We also said that far-right extremism would not end with this split. Today’s FPÖ leadership is made up of men who have no fear of having links with fascists and are open to historical ‘revisionist’ ideas: to rewrite history, ‘relativising’ the historic crimes of fascism. The FPÖ uses a mixture of pseudo-social rhetoric and aggressive racism. Combined with the weakness of the left, this is the basis for its electoral success.

In regard to immigration and asylum, all the major parties have turned to the right. Instead of speaking about social problems, they speak about a ‘migration problem’. Government representatives blamed school students from a migrant background for the bad results of Austrian pupils taking the international Pisa-study. Of course, they did not mention the massive cuts in education. The ÖVP interior minister claimed that 45% of Muslims in Austria are unwilling to integrate into society. This gave a further boost to the racist and anti-Muslim mood created by the FPÖ. This is the background to the increase in attacks on migrants by right-wing and fascist youth.

Due to the extreme bureaucratic and financial barriers put up by the state’s electoral bodies, the SLP was only able to stand in Vienna. We approached the Communist Party (KPÖ) for a joint election list, but they said SLP members would have to stand on the KPÖ’s ‘open list’. Recently, the KPÖ got good results in one Austrian federal state, Styria, where it won up to 20% in Austria’s second biggest town, Graz. In this area the KPÖ does social-type work, especially for housing tenants. Its main representative in the region, Ernest Kaltenegger, is regarded as an incorrupt, unprivileged, and therefore, untypical, Austrian politician. The KPÖ thought that it could repeat this success on an Austria-wide level.

But the KPÖ does not do similar work in other parts of Austria, nor did Kaltenegger stand on its general election list. The KPÖ had two one-hour programmes on state TV but did not use them to promote socialist ideas. Its main election slogan was: ‘To give, not to take’. It did not campaign against the FPÖ. The KPÖ gained 20,000 votes, getting 47,578 (1%) in total. But that was far from getting into parliament, which some sections of the KPÖ leadership were aiming for.

The only party that actively organised protests against the racist rallies of the FPÖ was the SLP. We had very positive responses to the ‘against capitalism’ part of the list name. The SLP produced literature in seven languages, which was warmly welcomed. We got 2,257 votes in Vienna, a good result but less than in 2002. The difference this time was that the KPÖ got much more press coverage, not because of its campaigning work, but because it stood all over Austria. So did the anti-corruption campaigning journalist Hans-Peter Martin, who got 14% in the last Euro-elections and could not therefore be ignored by the media. At the same time, some people thought the KPÖ had a chance of being elected to parliament. But if you compare the activity, the clarity of programme, and the socialist approach, the SLP was far more successful than the KPÖ.

Negotiations to form a new government are just starting. The most likely possibility, at the moment, is a grand coalition between the SPÖ and ÖVP. But the ÖVP will demand an extremely high price. It cannot be ruled out totally that there might be an ÖVP-FPÖ-BZÖ coalition. It is also possible that no government is formed, leading to new elections. Whatever the government, attacks on the living standards of the working class, on health, education, and immigrants, will continue. It will be quickly clear that the ‘fairness’ the SPÖ promoted during the campaign will not bring relevant benefits for the working class.

An important factor in future developments will be the role played by the ÖGB, the trade union federation. After a major financial and political crisis earlier this year (see, efforts to change the ÖGB have been half-hearted, at best. But the mood among the trade union ranks is changing. Just days after the election, a 65% majority at one of the ÖGB’s Vienna regional conferences voted to support a resolution moved by a SLP shop steward and general election candidate, calling for democratic decision-making, the right to elect and recall all union officials, for all officials to receive the average wage of the workers they represent, and for a "fighting policy not social partnership; the trade unions must be orientated to their members’ interests and not those of big business".

The ÖGB leaders’ demands on a new government are very general and no steps are proposed to fight for them. The leaders’ demands in current wage negotiations are extremely soft, only demanding ‘an increase’ in wages, without even saying that inflation has to be covered. There is anger among the rank and file over this. At Austrian Airlines, which is traditionally a combative workforce, workplace meetings are taking place to discuss possible strike measures against attempts to cut 350 jobs.

The attacks of the incoming government on workers, the unemployed and young people will provoke reaction. The trade union bureaucracy has partly lost its authority and, therefore, its grip on the membership. This increases the possibility for struggles of the working class, struggles that will help prepare the ground for a new workers’ party, with mass support, to contest the next general elections.

Sonja Grusch

Socialist LeftParty

(CWI) Vienna

CWI website:


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