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Issue 52

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Issue 52, October 2000

The year of Haider

    'Sanctions' help the government
    The new budget
    The politics of reaction
    The politics of resistance

Last October the far-right Freedom Party polled 26.9% in Austria's general election, subsequently forming a coalition government in February this year with the conservative Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP). Now Austria appears to be back in the European fold, with the European Union withdrawing its so-called 'sanctions'. How has this right-wing government been able to stabilise itself? What role has been played by 'sanctions', the opposition parties, and the resistance movement? BARBARA FRÖSCHL from the Soczialistische LinksPartei (SLP), the Austrian section of the CWI, reports.

THE 'SANCTIONS' IMPLEMENTED by the European Union (EU) at the beginning of this year in fact strengthened the Austrian government. This was the logical result of the hypocritical and purely moral arguments used by the EU politicians.

From the start the EU governments criticised the right-wing extremism of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) without mentioning the coalition government's neo-liberal programme, its reactionary attitudes towards women, and its anti-working class policies. Most of their criticism was based on quotes from FPÖ politicians, such as its former chairperson, Jörg Haider. These quotes, praising Nazism or seemingly supporting National Socialist (ie fascist) ideology, are bad enough - but they are not the only significant point concerning the FPÖ. Yet, because of the policies pursued by the EU governments in their own countries, other forms of criticism were not possible. The EU politicians tried to use the 'sanctions' to present the EU as being united against right-wing extremism and racism. At the same time, these governments stand for neo-liberalism and implement racist anti-immigration policies themselves.


When the EU leaders started to realise that their way of 'fighting' Haider and the FPÖ was not working, they tried to find a way out of their dilemma by appointing 'three wise men' - establishment European politicians who would report on Austria, the government and 'the nature of the FPÖ'. It was a ridiculous idea that three men from outside Austria, on a three-day visit where they spoke mainly with government representatives, could get a clear picture of the situation. Their report is as ridiculous as the idea itself as it is also based on moral lines, questioning the 'legality' of the government's structures. The social dimension of the government - its reactionary policies, especially against women, and its attempts to weaken the organisations of the working class - is ignored.

The report and the lifting of the 'sanctions' are clear victories for the government and especially for the FPÖ and Haider. Although the FPÖ has not changed at all, it can now argue that the EU had to recognise its mistake. The report's mild criticisms are ignored, and are irrelevant, because the conclusion calls for the lifting of 'sanctions'. This not only affects Austria but will strengthen the far-right all over Europe. The results will be seen in the coming months in countries such as Belgium and, in particular, Italy, where the Alleanza Nationale could form part of the government after next year's elections.

top     'Sanctions' help the government

IN REALITY, THE 'sanctions' did not exist. There were no fewer tourists than usual in Vienna and we did not lack any foreign products in the supermarkets. It was quite clear that they did not affect business at all. The only effect was that Austrian politicians did not appear on some EU photos.


On the other hand, the 'sanctions' enormously helped the government implement its policies without a big public discussion. The Austrian broadcasting company wrote in its monthly report that the main item of news most of the time was the issue of 'sanctions'. Almost nothing was said about the attacks on pensions, rising prices paid by patients for the public health system, increases in electricity tax for ordinary consumers (but not business), and other measures which adversely affected ordinary people. Austria was presented as the 'poor, innocent victim', nationalist feelings increased, and the EU's obvious hypocrisy exposed.

The FPÖ pursues an extremely populist agenda, of which Haider is the master. That is reflected in the double strategy it has followed since entering the government. On the one hand, there seems to be a 'moderate' neo-liberal wing, personified by FPÖ finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, who has been built up by the media.

On the other hand, there is Haider, now known as an 'ordinary rank-and-file member', since he stepped down as the FPÖ chairperson on 1 May, handing power over to Susanne Riess-Passer. But Haider still plays the same role he always has, attacking the government from Carinthia, where he is the provincial governor. In doing so he tries to maintain the support of a working-class electorate which is increasingly bewildered by the government's policies. He does not do this because the FPÖ has any 'social' or 'left' ideology. Its economic programme and the new budget prove the opposite. But Haider knows that next year's county elections in Vienna will be a judgement on the government and especially the FPÖ. The double strategy has become necessary because the latest opinion polls show that the FPÖ has lost support. It was for that reason that Haider demanded a referendum on the 'sanctions', once again using populism to keep up support for the FPÖ.


The elections in Styria on 15 October reflected the pressure the FPÖ is under. Compared to the last elections in Styria, the FPÖ lost nearly 5%, down to 12.41%. In comparison with the 1999 general election, they lost even more. A large part of their former supporters abstained. They felt betrayed by the cuts in social provision but saw no other party they could vote for, as Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) is no longer seen as a workers' party.

top     The new budget

THIS DOUBLE STRATEGY is also reflected in the new budget, which the government coalition is trying to present as 'social', some even say 'left'. The aim, however, is to dismantle the welfare state, following the dictum: 'less state, more private'. This is, in fact, the guiding principle behind all the government's measures. The new budget mainly hits people on low or middle incomes. For people with an income of more than £2,300 a month before tax, the effects decrease.

That the target is the welfare state becomes clear when you look at the proposed changes to the pension system. The aim is to base pensions on three different sources: private pensions, company pensions paid through employees' contributions, and the state pension. This makes the system much more expensive and worse for ordinary people, but provides the opportunity for speculation and profits to business. Practically speaking, tax deductions for employees are reduced. It is still possible to receive this tax break, but only if you invest €1,000 (£580) a year in a private pension. Not many working-class people will have enough money to do this and will therefore end up paying £35 more tax each year. This is on top of about £200 extra that workers have to pay from policies already implemented.


There are some measures in the new budget, however, which do not seem to fit into the neo-liberal programme. The most remarkable one is that money in foundations will be taxed at a slightly higher rate (up from 2.5% to 5%). It has been a common practise (and will remain so in the future) for extremely rich people to put their money into foundations to avoid paying taxes. Millions of schillings have been held practically tax-free.

Such a tax measure has been demanded by so-called 'left' politicians and the trade unions for a long time but was always turned down by the SPÖ. Now, when the budget was discussed in parliament, the SPÖ chairperson, Alfred Gusenbauer, criticised the government for 'taking money away from business', complaining that the budget was 'the most hostile to business since 1945'. Thus we witnessed the ludicrous situation of the SPÖ trying to overtake the FPÖ from the right!

The budget and other government measures must be taken as a whole, not separately. Christoph Leitl, chairperson of the Austrian Chamber of Business (Österreichische Bundeswirtschaftskammer - the main employers' organisation), said that he accepts the measures as 'an investment in the future'. He explained that the FPÖ finance minister Grasser has guaranteed that the reduction in corporation tax and other measures planned for 2002 would ensure that businesses get back their investment 'and more'. It is obvious that the Austrian bourgeoisie expects the smashing of the welfare state and privatisation to be forced through more quickly under this government than it would have been under the former SPÖ/ÖVP government. It is in their interests, therefore, that ÖVP/FPÖ stay in power for more than one term. They are willing to provide the resources to ensure that is the case: to 'invest' now, stabilise the government, and get more back later.


top     The politics of reaction

SINCE FEBRUARY, WHEN the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition government was formed, big changes have taken place, although most of them have been implemented through the back door. The government's neo-liberal policies and cuts in social services have been linked with reactionary positions on a number of questions, with women, immigrants, lesbians and gays, and working-class people in general, being affected badly. The father/mother/child family is seen as the only acceptable way of living and is presented as 'the best place to bring up children', to quote the FPÖ minister of social affairs, Elisabeth Sickl. Women are again being pressured to go back to their role as mothers and housewives. Information centres for unemployed women, and for lesbians and gays, are having their funding cut. Privatisation, which often goes hand-in-hand with 'flexible' working practices and the introduction of part-time jobs, is especially affecting women, destroying their financial independence and forcing them back to the kitchen and family.

The situation for immigrants and 'non-Austrian looking' people has worsened. FPÖ's overtly racist election posters in Vienna have to be seen as responsible for the current situation, where a three-year-old child was beaten nearly to death by neo-Nazis just because he was black. On the other hand, institutions offering help to immigrants, or explaining the Nazis' history and presence in Austria today, are no longer able to get civil servants to work with them. In court cases against black immigrants accused of being drug dealers, 'witnesses' wear crash helmets and get rewarded for their information with reductions in their own charges. These examples illustrate the government's attitude and the wide differences in opportunity available to different sections of society. This affects the political and social climate as a whole


There has also been an erosion of basic democratic rights, such as freedom of expression. In a discussion about the 'sanctions' in May, Haider proposed that all elected representatives who criticise the government or do not stand against the EU should be fined. The new minister for justice, Dieter Böhmdorfer, was in favour of this idea. Such measures would be used mainly against the left. Böhmdorfer is one of the lawyers who for years shifted allegations made against the FPÖ onto its opponents. At present, the FPÖ's tactics include taking legal action against people who write letters to newspapers criticising the party. The judge who most recently dealt with these cases, Ernest Maurer, is close to the FPÖ.

Combined with this are attempts to frighten off opponents through measures such as fines. A group of people, including two members of the Soczialistische LinksPartei, were fined for not registering the weekly Thursday demonstrations. The FPÖ chairperson, Suzanne Riess-Passer, has also raised the idea of making strikes in the public sector illegal, after the government had announced a 0% 'pay offer' to the public-sector trade union, the Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst (GÖD).

top     The politics of resistance

ALL THIS, HOWEVER, has not been met without resistance. There is a changed mood in society, an enormous politicisation and polarisation. The protests which started on 1 February still take place every week. The possibility of strike action is still being discussed. In a country where for decades the annual strike figures were measured in seconds, this is a big step forward. The resistance movement continues and political consciousness has fundamentally changed. One-in-five of the capital's population under the age of 30 has taken part in the Thursday demonstrations.


It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that demonstrations alone cannot bring down the government. The trade unions could potentially play the most important role. In reality, the unions do not take part in the resistance movement against the government, and they do not organise anything themselves. They held a very calm day of protest in June but have no plans for the autumn. In spite of some radical statements by trade union representatives in recent weeks, no action followed.

The rank and file are prepared to struggle. This was shown by the 3,000 railway workers who participated in the 50,000-strong university and school students' demo on 11 October. But the union leadership is more frightened of losing control of a workers' movement than of losing membership as a result of their inactivity. Yet only the trade unions have the size and organisational potential to mobilise large parts of the population and to organise strikes - the only way to get rid of the government.

Neither the SPÖ nor the Green Party are an effective opposition. The SPÖ was the first to come down on the side of the government against the EU 'sanctions'. When the SPÖ was rejected by the FPÖ, the former SPÖ-minister of internal affairs, Karl Schlögel, argued that the party should rethink its attitude. In sections of the SPÖ you can see a development in the direction of the FPÖ. Both the SPÖ and the Greens support Grasser's zero-deficit policies. Neither party plays any significant role in the resistance movement.

It is impressive that even after the end of the 'sanctions' a thousand people or so still go on the weekly demonstrations. But there is a feeling of having come to a dead end. Within the movement there is a desire to continue, to co-ordinate different types of resistance, and take new initiatives. But there is also a lack of perspectives and clear ideas. Strike action is seen as a way of bringing down the government but, because of the paralysis of the trade union leaders, shop stewards and union activists have had to start organising on a rank-and-file level. This small step, backed by the Soczialistische LinksPartei, is one in the right direction.


Another important question is that of a political alternative, which the SPÖ and the Greens do not provide. The issue of a political alternative, therefore, which people can get involved with and vote for, becomes more and more important to effectively build opposition against the government. The question of a new workers' party, which fights for working-class people, immigrants and women, is vital. This is the only effective answer to the right-wing politicians and the far-right. It is in this context, as a first step in this direction, that the Soczialistische LinksPartei will be standing in the Viennese county elections next year.

The government could stabilise because of the lack of an alternative. But it is still potentially unstable because of the different interests of the two parties involved in the coalition, with the FPÖ under pressure from its electoral base. The economic upswing in Europe has helped the government gain a breathing space, but that will be temporary. The potential instability can become actual. And with the development of a political alternative, which the Soczialistische LinksPartei is fighting for, this government could still be brought down.

For more information on Austria, and the activities of the Soczialistische LinksPartei, visit the SLP website on

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