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Issue 43, November 1999

A warning from Austria

BY WINNING 27% of the vote in Austria's general election in October, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÙ) became the second strongest party in the country. What lies behind this success? And is the FPÙ leader J÷rg Haider now on the road to power?

The election success of the FPÙ did not fall from heaven but was the result of a long process, which started with the take-over of the party leadership by Haider in 1986. Step by step Haider changed the party from a grouping of 'Altnazis', left-over fascists, with some liberal officials at the top, to the most successful organisation of the new far-right in Europe. In Austria, consequently, there has existed since the middle of the 1980s a united extreme-right force, with a developed apparatus and a charismatic leader, which has political experience and money. The FPÙ is not a fascist party but mixes key far-right ideas - racism, an authoritarian state, anti-trade union policy - with a very flexible populist phraseology. However this alone does not explain the success of the FPÙ.

Inseparably linked with the rise of the FPÙ was the coming to power in 1987 of the so-called 'grand coalition', made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPÙ) and the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÙVP). Since then the SPÙ and ÙVP have privatised the former nationalised industries, seen unemployment double, and have carried out two major 'savings-packages' (ie cuts).


The shock this created within the working class has been deeper than elsewhere. Austria in the 1970s, with the SPÙ in power since 1970, had been seen as a social democratic 'model-state', similar to Sweden. But the 'stability' which the SPÙ put forward in this election campaign as their only slogan, does not exist any longer. In the former social democratic idyll, up to a fifth of the population now live on the poverty line! The politics of the present SPÙ have nothing to do with those of the 1970s. Instead the social democrats have stood in recent years at the head of a government that has made Austria, at breathtaking speed, part of the neo-liberal change in Europe - symbolised through joining the EU at the beginning of the 1990s. A whole generation has experienced the SPÙ only as a party of social cuts.

What has also been critical is that all these changes have been forced through without significant resistance from below. The trade union federation (ÙGB) has been tied into the government's policies and has often actively participated in pushing through the cuts. Historically, this absence of resistance can be traced back to the system of proportional representation ('proporz') and ideas of social-partnership - as well as the extreme 'anti-communism' spread by the social democrats in the the workers' movement since 1945, an important reason why a party to the left of the SPÙ has not emerged to date. Proporz and the idea of social-partnership led to power-sharing between the SPÙ and the ÙVP, as well as the involvement of the trade unions at all levels of society. The ÙGB is and wants to be part of the state apparatus, and has given up use of the strike weapon and any other form of resistance to achieve this. Now, however, this strategy is in deep crisis. More and more entrepreneurs want to rule without involving the SPÙ and the trade unions. For them the FPÙ puts forward the demand for the elimination of trade union influence and an end of social-partnership.


Other, wider sections of the population, are against the corruption that is connected with this system and for many of them the FPÙ can present itself as an (apparent) alternative. On the other hand, the SPÙ is the only force which identifies itself fully with this outdated model - another reason for its decline.

The price for the neo-liberal turn of the SPÙ has been the loss of its traditional members and voter base, as well as the total disappearance of the youth from this party. Only 40% of workers and 25% of those under-30 voted for the SPÙ this time. Amongst both groups the FPÙ was the strongest party - with 45% of workers (mainly male) and 35% of the youth vote. These figures clearly show that the position of the SPÙ as the traditional workers party is coming to an end. However, the FPÙ can only partially fill the vacuum. The SPÙ lost 230,000 voters to the FPÙ in these elections, but lost a further 275,000 to abstentions. And although the FPÙ won the biggest share of working class votes, it has not succeeded at all in sinking roots into the workers' movement itself: less than one per cent of shop stewards identify themselves with the FPÙ's trade union fraction.

In addition, in organisational terms, Haider has not been able to benefit from the declining membership of the two big parties. With about 40.000 members, the FPÙ has stagnated at the same level since the middle of the 1980s (in comparison both the SPÙ and ÙVP have up to 400,000 members). The FPÙ remains a protest party, the strength of which is the result mainly of one circumstance - it has, so far, no significant opponent.


Most commentators no longer question whether the FPÙ will at one point come into government. The only question that they put is 'when'. The ÙVP, which portrays its election result as a success because it lost less votes than the SPÙ, is split on this issue. Governing with the SPÙ guarantees the continued decline of both parties and, for the ÙVP, means abandoning any chance of claiming the position of chancellor. On the other hand a coalition with the FPÙ would be a hard to calculate risk, and not only because the FPÙ could benefit much more from such an alliance.

The election result has caused an enormous polarisation in Austria. Everywhere, in workplaces, pubs, and on the street, the discussion is about the political situation. On October 1, at Haider's last public election rally in Vienna, hundreds of unorganised FPÙ-opponents turned out to protest. Since then, especially amongst the youth, there has developed a mood very similar to the period at the beginning of the 1990s. Anti-racism and opposition to the FPÙ are central topics, which politicise and activate. According to opinion polls up to 60% reject the 'grand coalition' - but even more oppose the participation of the FPÙ in government.

The fact that none of the established parties could prevent the rise of Haider however, or will prevent his further ascent, has become obvious to many. The FPÙ already has the regional Landeshauptmann position (governor) in Carinthia and the vice-Landeshauptmann in the state of Vorarlberg. The result of the strengthened position of the FPÙ will be that whatever government is formed will try to continue the turn to the right of recent years - as with the extremely repressive and restrictive immigration policy. The discussion on the budget for 2000 has not yet started: a tax reform will be needed to finance it while the EU pact for stability will have to be fulfilled.


Political instability, and the question of what political alternative is necessary, will be the essential features of the next period. There will be many opportunities to put forward a socialist alternative and, with it, the idea of a new workers' party as the only way forward.

John Evers
Sozialistiche Offensive Vorwarts, Vienna

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