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Issue 46

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Issue 46, April 2000

Austria awakens - a country in resistance

    The end of the Second Republic
    The role of Haider
    No going back

Since February, seemingly peaceful Austria has been shaken by protests. Pictures of mass demonstrations hit the front pages all over the world. The slogan 'Widerstand' - resistance - was heard on Austrian radio and television. Jörg Haider was portrayed as the new Hitler. SONJA GRUSCH, of the Soczialistische Links Partei (SLP), the Committee for a Workers' International section in Austria, reports from Vienna on the opening of a new period.

SINCE THE FIRST day of its formation on February 1, protests have accompanied the 'Blue-Black' government - a coalition of the conservative Peoples Party (ÖVP) and the far-right, populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), headed by Haider. Even before the new government was sworn in there were demonstrations and an occupation of the ÖVP headquarters. Tens of thousands of protestors forced the prospective government ministers to travel to the formal inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace via an underground tunnel. This was the first time since 1945 that a new government could not openly walk into office.

The square in front of the president's palace was crowded with people shouting slogans, carrying banners, throwing eggs, tomatoes and other things at the police. Not only angry youth but many older people were there as well. The picket started at ten o'clock in the morning. The demonstrations held throughout different parts of Vienna, including an occupation of the ministry for social affairs in opposition to the appointment of a FPÖ minister, went on until after midnight. And the protests did not stop there. For nearly three weeks there was at least one demonstration in Vienna every day. In all the major cities people went onto the streets. On 18 February over 15,000 school students followed the call of the School Students Action Platform for a one-day school students' strike. The following day, 300,000 people came to a mass demonstration in Vienna. In spite of the pouring rain, people came from other parts of Austria, along with international visitors (including the Socialist Party's TD in the Irish Dáil, Joe Higgins). Since then the protests have continued on a weekly basis - the first with over 15,000 in attendance, and with more than 20,000 at the demonstration outside the opera ball (the social event of the rich in Austria). On 15 March, students from the main university of Vienna occupied the biggest lecture hall and called for a week of protests after 22 March. The resistance is continuing. But it is also becoming clear to growing numbers of people that demonstrations alone will not bring the government down: a new step has to be taken. If the movement does not reach that higher stage, there is a danger that it will ebb away, at least for a time.


top     The end of the Second Republic

THE 'SECOND REPUBLIC' which emerged after 1945 was characterised by a stable political system that was rooted in a so-called 'social partnership'. Although a similar process had developed in other European countries in the period of the post-war boom, it was perfected in Austria with the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the trade unions being drawn as 'partners' with capitalist representatives into the state structures. The result of this policy was a very low level of class struggle, with strikes being measured in seconds per worker per year and the working class losing the experience of fighting back. Economic development allowed room for reforms and concessions to working-class people. As long as the SPÖ retained the support of the working class, its integration into the political structures ensured the system's stability.

But the right-ward evolution of the SPÖ - its bourgeoisification - and the increasing need to make harder attacks on the working class, compelled the Austrian bourgeoisie to change its strategy from integration to attacking workers' rights and conditions, creating the potential for social and political instability. 'Globalisation', the increasing competition on the world market, led to more and more pressure on Austrian capital. In the October 1999 general election the Freedom Party made gains on the basis of widespread disillusionment with the coalition parties, especially with the SPÖ (see our previous report, A Warning from Austria, in Socialism Today No.43, November 1999). Following the election, the majority of the Austrian capitalists withdrew their support from the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition, in favour of a government which included the FPÖ, as a means of maintaining their profits.


The plan seemed to be working out well: the programme agreed by the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition signals the end of the welfare state as it has existed in the post-war period, with a reduction in pensions of up to 20% and self-payment in the health service now up to 20%. A two-tier education system is being introduced with the possible implementation of tuition fees and more big business influence in the universities. The government aims to 'solve' the problem of unemployment by forcing women to stay at home with their children and through the privatisation of the unemployment services. Last but not least, the government plans vicious attacks on the trade unions, including the first steps to ending collective bargaining. Negotiations on working hours are being moved from a national to a company level. The new coalition's programme is undoubtedly a bonus for the bosses' organisations.

One thing the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition partners and their backers underestimated, however, was the potential for protests. They hoped for a continuation of the 50 years of quiescence of the working class in Austria - even in 1968, a year of international revolutionary movements, Austria experienced what was described as 'a hot quarter-of-an-hour'. The capitalist backers of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition expected that the erosion of the tradition of fighting back would make it relatively easy for the government to go through with its plans. But they had not seen the enormous anger that had built up against the social cuts of the last few years and at the open betrayal of the SPÖ which had been in power from 1970 to 1999. They underestimated the potential for the re-emergence of the anti-racist protests which had taken off in the early 1990s, but which had died down subsequently. And they did not take into account the changed mood in relation to 'radical', left and even socialist ideas. They hoped that the process of political polarisation, seen throughout Europe as the capitalists have attempted to carry out their neo-liberal programme, would pass Austria by.


On 3 October 1999, when the general election brought the defeat of the SPÖ-ÖVP 'grand coalition' which had underpinned the 'Second Republic', all this broke down. The anger burst out into the open. Since then tens and hundreds of thousands of people have not only started to get interested in politics, but have begun to take action.

Against this background, the present Austrian government is the weakest since 1945. For a whole month, practically the only press it got was in connection with the protests. The main task that the ÖVP leadership has faced has been to attempt to 'legitimise' the FPÖ and Haider. The government is under close scrutiny and pressure from within Austria and internationally. It is also divided internally, reflecting the competing interests of the different groups in society it represents.

The ÖVP as the traditional and, as yet, main party of Austrian capital, desperately wants to introduce further privatisation and neo-liberal policies. It is afraid that the international protests could have negative repercussions for the economy. Following decades of a drop in votes, the pact was the last chance for the ÖVP to gain the chancellor's position. After new elections their electoral support could drop dramatically, opening up the possibility of splits in the party.

The FPÖ's populism puts it under strong pressure from its social base - the capitalists and middle classes - on the one side, and from another segment of its electoral base - the working class - on the other. The contradictions between carrying out neo-liberal policies while trying to keep up the image of a 'party of the ordinary people' is clear. But as long as there is no alternative on the left, the FPÖ can continue to present itself as an anti-establishment opposition. There is a polarisation taking place on both sides - left and right. There is the danger, therefore, of support for the far-right growing further.


The ÖVP is prepared to go to great lengths to keep the government alive. Their leaders realise that the collapse of the government could mean the end of the party. So they repeatedly excuse Haider's attacks on foreigners, other politicians and the EU. What has kept the government together is its weakness and the lack of any viable alternative. But, although both parties try to present a united appearance, inner tensions are becoming more and more obvious within the coalition.

top     The role of Haider

HAIDER HAS BEEN the driving force in the FPÖ since he took over as party chairman in 1986. He introduced the element of extreme right-wing populism, moulding the FPÖ into a modern far-right party, and leading it to its electoral success last October.

Haider, however, became a liability for the new government in the wake of the international protests - the criticisms were not levelled against the government's policies or programme of social cuts and racism, but were directed against Haider personally. His resignation as FPÖ chairman is an attempt to reduce the pressure on the party and to allow the government to distance itself from Haider's inflammatory remarks. The FPÖ is actually attempting to play on two sides at the same time. Haider's resignation is a tactical manoeuvre enabling him to keep playing the role of opposition. He can continue being the 'heckler from Carinthia' - where he is state governor - without having to give up his populist positions. Despite his formal resignation, it is clear that he will remain the major figure in the FPÖ. The new FPÖ chairwoman, Susanne Riess-Passer, stated that she keeps in daily contact with Haider and that the aim is to help him become chancellor. In future elections Haider will probably be the FPÖ's top candidate once again.


The resignation represents an internal division of labour within the FPÖ. This has become necessary because of the contradictory position the FPÖ finds itself in: as part of the coalition government it carries out neo-liberal policies which will be carried out at the expense of FPÖ voters. Riess-Passer's role is to do the dirty and unpopular government work whilst Haider, faking opposition, acts as a 'tribune of the people', fighting for 'hard-working ordinary Austrians'. If the government is forced to resign or faces massive protests, Haider can avoid any blame for its actions against working-class people.

The government is under many pressures. It needs to prove it is a stable administration. This is linked to the struggle for the survival of the ÖVP, and for the FPÖ to show that it has become a serious political force. There are in fact deep internal tensions between - and inside - the various parties. On top of this there are the massive protests on the streets. How all this unfolds and how long the government can stay in power depends on a number of factors. Of crucial importance is the direction in which the resistance develops.

The government is dangerous because of its neo-liberal policies and racism. But Austria is not on a direct course to fascism, as some commentators say. The FPÖ's gains are predominantly electoral, reflecting a reaction against the anti-working class measures of the previous coalition. This is a warning for the future, but the threat should not be exaggerated. Haider has been able to gather votes but cannot at this time mobilise significant social forces. The extraordinary protest movement against Haider entering the government is a much better indicator of the real balance of forces in Austrian society than the FPÖ's electoral gains. The FPÖ is a far-right party with traditional links to fascists, but its main electoral appeal at the moment is populism, linked with racism and chauvinism.


At present there is no basis for fascism in Austrian society, in the classical sense of the mobilisation of frenzied sections of the middle class and demoralised workers into an organised force, including para-military groups, to use as a weapon to smash workers' organisations and all democratic structures. We have to resist the growth of the influence of Haider and the FPÖ, which poses a real threat to the working class, particularly in the future. But it is necessary to understand the nature of an enemy in order to fight against it successfully - only then can the right weapons be chosen. Battle needs to be waged on the government's economic programme, its neo-liberal policies, and racism.

The massive reaction against Haider and the FPÖ joining the government is a very positive phenomenon. It demonstrates that in Austria and internationally a layer of the population has a deep-rooted rejection of anyone who associates themselves with Nazi rule in the past or even hints at a return to fascist methods in the future. But it is a crude over-simplification to proclaim 'Haider Equals Hitler', a slogan which can spread panic and leads the resistance in the wrong direction, weakening its effects. This is a moralistic stance which in practise results in appeals to the 'more moderate' wing of the capitalist class, instead of organising the working class to fight back. The main danger posed by Haider is that a strengthening of his electoral support and the FPÖ's participation in government will create the political conditions for an intensified neo-liberal offensive against the working class.


The polarisation and politicisation which has taken place over the last few weeks, is enormous. People who were never politically active in their lives are on the streets with self-made placards. People wave and hang red banners from their windows when demonstrations pass by. In the schools, workplaces and pubs, and on public transport, the government is topic number one. No other political issue has been debated so intensely for decades. But there is a lack of an alternative. Only after six weeks of protests did the call go out for new elections. It was raised by Democratic Offensiv, a middle-class opposition platform doing its best not to be perceived as being 'too radical'. Although SPÖ and Green Party leaders have participated in the demonstrations, they do not play a major role. Many protesters lay the responsibility for the rise of Haider on the SPÖ. It was their policies of cuts and their racist anti-immigration/anti-asylum seekers policy that laid the basis for the racist mood which the FPÖ builds on.

top     No going back

CURRENTLY, THE MAIN problem is the lack of any alternative. But a fundamental change is taking place in Austrian politics and in what people think is possible. Working-class people had been kept out of political activity. This has now ended with this movement and there is no going back. The resistance movement also makes it more difficult for the new government to implement the planned cuts. There is a changed mood and an increasing understanding for the need to get active. But there is still a lack of organisation. The SPÖ is not seen as a viable alternative, even after their attempt to present themselves as more to the left with the election of the former Socialist Youth leader, Alfred Gusenbauer, as the new party chairperson. The Greens claim to be the 'real patriots' and raise no left demands, or put any organisational way forward.


In the trade unions pressure for action is building from below, but is coming up against the dominant union bureaucracy. An important change occurred earlier this year when rank-and-file anger prevented the union leaders from signing the planned ÖVP-SPÖ coalition package, which effectively ended the coalition. The mood is still so strong against more cuts and against the new government, that the ÖGB (Austrian trade union federation) had to support the large demonstration on February 19 against the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. Prominent union representatives have been talking publicly about strike action. Until now, however, they have argued that they must wait until the government's plans are put to parliament before they take any action against it. As long as there is no organised opposition in the trade unions, this mood will not lead to militant struggle or positive results. It appears unlikely that the unions will organise strikes, which would be the only measure which could bring the government down. If the trade unions do not get involved in the resistance movement, it would have very negative effects. The unions themselves could be weakened and the right strengthened.

In 1978 and 1984, two big, successful movements - against atomic and water power stations - shook Austria. One of the results was the founding of the Green Party. Signs of a similar development today are still missing at this stage. Yet the resistance movement is not only against the racist policies of the government but also against the social cuts. The question of a new party for workers, the unemployed, immigrants, young people and pensioners is on the agenda, although it is not a demand yet being made by the movement. The SLP argues against the government and is active in the movement. But we also try to build a viable alternative to this government. That means the building of a new workers' party - a party which is active in the struggle but which also provides an alternative on the electoral field. It is also necessary to understand the political reality of the situation: that any other government would continue with similar anti-working class policies if it bases itself on the logic of capitalism. As long as profit remains the motive force for the economic and social system, cutbacks will be implemented and racism used as a tool to split the working class and to prevent resistance. The alternative, therefore, requires a change to another type of society, one without exploitation and repression - a socialist society.


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