SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 230 July-August 2019

Austria’s right-wing coalition collapses

At the end of May events moved fast in Austria after the then vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache featured in the leaked ‘Ibiza video’. He was seen and heard plotting to take over the Kronenzeitung, Austria’s biggest newspaper, with the help of what he believed to be a Russian investor who was also offered government contracts.

The coalition government of Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and Strache’s far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) rapidly collapsed. Kurz was ousted as chancellor by a parliamentary no-confidence vote just one day after his party had increased its vote in the Euro elections to 34%. A general election is now due to be held in September, although a date has not been set yet.

Filling the gap is a technocratic ‘government of experts’, headed by Brigitte Bierlein, president of the constitutional high court who has links to both the ÖVP and FPÖ. She was accepted by all the establishment political parties. President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party member, also backed Bierlein.

Among the ministers she presented was Andreas Reichardt as minister of transport. He had previously been its secretary, under the FPÖ’s Norbert Hofer. Photos from his youth appear to show him alongside Strache conducting ‘war sports’ activities with far-right, would-be paramilitaries.

As a concession to the formerly social-democratic SPÖ, Clemens Jabloner, president of the administrative high court and close to the party, will be vice-chancellor. The new government includes other ministers linked to the SPÖ in an attempt to present a seemingly neutral administration when, of course, this is a firmly capitalist government.

Liste Jetzt (Now List, a split from the Greens), raised the idea that the elections should be postponed, allowing the technocratic government to continue, with influence from the political parties. A number of suggestions are being floated to reverse some of the previous ÖVP-FPÖ government’s decisions. These include the deeply unpopular extension of maximum working hours to twelve hours a day.

This initiative could gain the support of the SPÖ and the FPÖ, fearful they could lose more votes. That fear played a role in the no-confidence vote going through – passed by the SPÖ, FPÖ, and the Liste Jetzt (the Greens have no MPs at present). Even though it is an instable election vehicle for Peter Pilz, a former Green Party MP, Liste Jetzt is partially filling the gap on the parliamentary left. In a way, it shows what could be done by a working-class party that not only uses parliament to expose the establishment parties but mobilises organised resistance against austerity with the trade unions.

Throughout the crisis, president Van der Bellen has been very careful to create an atmosphere of calmness and stability, using an Austrian version of ‘yes we can’. He is trying to ensure that the state institutions do not lose too much credibility through this scandal. At the same time, he is acting on behalf of those sections of the ruling class concerned by FPÖ influence over key parts of the state machine. There were a few moments when the ruling class was split and did not know how to react. Van der Bellen pulled them together.

Increasingly, all politicians are seen as corrupt, and this is why the scandal did not provoke a big slump for the FPÖ in the Euro elections. It did lose votes but has stabilised at 17-18%. The attitude of FPÖ voters was: they are all corrupt anyway; Strache was drunk; and he was set up. There is a possibility that Strache might found his own party if he is expelled or does not get any support within the FPÖ. Another section of the FPÖ around Hofer wants to remain in government and tries to present itself as free of any corruption. What will happen to the FPÖ is very open.

What is clear is that the problem of the far right will not be ended by this scandal, whether the FPÖ splits or not. The conditions that led to its rise continue to exist – anger about the social situation, alienation from the political structures, and a vacuum on the left.

Kurz is up to 38% in the polls, an echo of what happened in 2002 when the ÖVP won with 42% after the breakdown of the first ÖVP-FPÖ ‘black-blue’ coalition government. Support lost by the FPÖ is being picked up by Kurz’s populism as he tries to present himself as a ‘trustworthy and respectable’ anti-immigration politician. Nonetheless, a new version of the black-blue coalition is a very real possibility.

There might be a lesser-evil mood towards the SPÖ, Greens and the New Austrian Liberal Forum (NEOS, set up in 2012) in autumn’s elections. Increasingly, however, they are not seen as a viable alternative. In the future, NEOS could be a coalition partner for Kurz and the ÖVP. So could the Greens, although they currently prefer the SPÖ.

Incredibly, the SPÖ seems to have actually lost from this scandal! This may be down to a certain shift to the Greens, now on 10% after having lost all their parliamentary seats in 2017. It is also because, for many, the SPÖ is not seen as a credible alternative – often seen as corrupt and pro-cuts. It is against this background that, from repeatedly winning over 50% during the 1970s, the SPÖ won just under 27% in 2017. At the end of May, it was getting around 22% in opinion polls.

In the SPÖ, there is now a discussion about its political direction, and which party it should aim at to win voters back: the FPÖ or the Greens. It is not a debate about fighting cuts, the real strategy to win back the votes it has lost to the FPÖ.

The speed of the collapse of the black-blue coalition is an expression of the instability of seemingly stable governments. There had been movements since its formation in December 2017 – including weekly demonstrations in Vienna against the FPÖ on racism and attacks on democratic rights, and trade union mobilisations on social questions – but they did not undermine its overall support. This was partly because of its use of anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiments.

There was a 100,000-strong trade union protest in June 2018 against the twelve-hour maximum working day, mobilisations against the amalgamation of regional state health insurance bodies, meaning cuts, and smaller protests against proposed cuts to unemployment benefits. There had been a popular mood for a general strike but leaders of the ÖGB trade union federation diverted the resistance away from confronting the government into seeking deals in that autumn’s collective bargaining round. That split the struggle into different sectors of the working class.

Now the ÖGB leaders have offered to ‘guarantee stability’ if the ‘social partnership’ is renewed. Instead of co-operating with the new administration, they should demand that the attacks of the old government are taken back immediately. They should not support any party that refuses to commit to this. Such is the mounting pressure and the governmental instability that the twelve-hour measure could be reversed, making it all the more urgent that the ÖGB takes action.

What is needed urgently is workers’ and left alternative at the coming election, in defence of living standards, against the twelve-hour day and other attacks. If such an alternative is not built, there will be the continual danger that the right will creep back in. It is clear that there is space to the left of the SPÖ and Greens that could be filled with a working-class party. The government crisis gives a new opportunity to begin the work of creating such a force capable of challenging the establishment parties, with a socialist programme to end austerity and the turmoil of capitalism.

Laura Rafetseder

This is an edited extract from the CWI website:

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