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Austria: Dramatic gains for the Right

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Even predicted political earthquakes remain earthquakes. The success of Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the Freedom Party, FPÖ, in the first round of the Presidential election, marks a real turning point in Austria's politics. With 35.05 per cent of the vote, 1,499,971 votes, Hofer not only came first but by a greater margin than predicted in the polls.

He was followed by the economist Professor Alexander van der Bellen, who ran as an "independent" but was leader of the Greens for many years and was widely understood as their candidate. He won 21.34 percent (913,641 votes). In third place came the right-wing liberal "independent" judge, Irmgard Griss, with 18.94 percent (810,315). Lagging far behind these came the candidates of the governing "Grand Coalition" of the Socialist Party, SPÖ and the conservative People's Party, ÖVP. The SPÖ-candidate, Rudolf Hundstorfer gained just 11.28 percent of the vote and the ÖVP's Andreas Khol, 11.12. The only candidate with fewer votes was Richard Lugner, 2.2 per cent, who contributed nothing to the election campaign apart from a few clownish episodes.


It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this outcome. Since the Second World War, only candidates of SPÖ and ÖVP have ever won a presidential election. In fact, until this year, no other party ever had the remotest chance of winning.

This was consistent with a two-party system that also led to the formation of “Grand Coalitions” at governmental level. At the economic level, systematic collaboration between trade unions and companies, especially in the state owned industries and the public services, formed the background to this deep rooted system of class-collaboration.

However, since the 90s, intensified international competition has put this system under pressure. The Austrian bourgeoisie, like their EU competitors, have pushed for more and more “reforms” on labour rights, privatisation and social welfare and, just as in other countries, social democracy has retreated more and more. The more the party retreated under the pressure of the entrepreneurs, the more working class voters turned their backs on social democracy. All too many of them found a "perspective" in the racist and populist demagogy of the FPÖ, which presented itself as an “honest” alternative to the corruption of the established parties and their system.

However, it was not only the SPÖ's opportunist accommodation to neo-liberalism and capitalist attacks that contributed to the rise of the FPÖ. At the turn of the century, the formation of a “blue-black” coalition, that is, a government of the People's Party and the right populist Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, revealed that a part of Austrian capital itself wanted a change of regime and an end to the systematic involvement of trade unions and social democrats in running the country.

Although it was the historical party of the Austrian bourgeoisie, the ÖVP proved unable to play the leadership role in breaking up the system of government it had supported for so long. Although the blue-black coalition did not last, in the long term this worked to the advantage of the FPÖ. The return to a “Grand Coalition” served only to hide the growing pressure of forces beneath the surface of society that threatened to explode the old regime. And now they have erupted.


After the first round, the FPÖ candidate, Hofer, is the clear favourite over van der Bellen. His victory would not only mean an openly racist Head of State, but pose the threat that he would make use of the quite considerable powers of the President, which had little practical significance for most of the Second Republic.

For example, the Constitution not only formally recognises the President as the Head of State and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, it also grants the power to appoint the Chancellor and block not only the appointment of specific Ministers but also proposed coalitions. Hofer's "promise" to be an “active president” is, therefore, a dangerous threat. It is likely that, in the right circumstances, he would try to bring about a change of government or block laws that were not sufficiently reactionary for him.

Hofer, however, was not the only candidate proposing to activate the openly Bonapartist elements of the State Constitution. The "independent" candidate, Griss, painted similar scenarios in her election advertising and the ÖVP's candidate, Kohl, also wanted to play a "more active" role.

This call for a strong “independent” president is increasingly popular in the right and conservative camps. They often present it as a populist critique of the “party system”, as a call for an authoritative figure, standing “above all the parties”. Inevitably, it would be racism and nationalism that would unite the subjects of such a "figurehead".

It is quite ironic that only Hundstorfer, the SPÖ candidate, who chaired the Trade Union Federation, ÖGB, for many years and then became Minister of Social Affairs, wanted to be a president who would keep out of daily politics and play the role of a colourless President, just as he had been a colourless bureaucrat for most of his political life.

A victory for Hofer would threaten a further worsening of the already racist direction of policy in Austria. Even before the elections, the FPÖ managed to force Faymann's government to shift its policy from one of supporting Merkel in Europe. He and his government turned to an ultra-nationalist course, sealing off the Balkan route for refugees. Thus, even under the current SPÖ-led government, Austrian imperialism has presented itself as a "protective force" against "foreign infiltration", a leading force of reaction that actively participated in the closure of the Macedonian border.

Domestically, Faymann’s SPÖ and the ÖVP hoped to take the wind out of the sails of the Freedom Party by implementing its racist programme themselves. Social democracy did not just continue its usual, bad policy of managing the affairs of state for Austrian capital but took the lead in a major offensive against the international working class and the oppressed, in a way Austrian imperialism has not done for decades.

That was also the reason why it would have been wrong in this election to give critical support to Hundstorfer. Although he was the candidate of a reformist party still historically and organically rooted in the working class, the main issue of the election was not the class distinction between the SPÖ and the open bourgeois parties. It was about the racist onslaught on the working class in Europe and the most oppressed sections in Austria in particular.

That fact that the voters chose not the imitators of the racist FPÖ but the real thing, should be a lesson to the Social Democrats. The racist politics adopted by the SPÖ have not only divided the working class and strengthened the FPÖ but also prepared the ground for brutal attacks on the working class in the coming crisis. As President, Hofer could try to initiate this by breaking up the existing coalition government and forcing new elections.

On current polling results, that would probably make the FPÖ the strongest party. In that situation, the ÖVP could ditch its coalition with the SPÖ and form one with the FPÖ, even if that ran the risk of reducing the ÖVP to a minority party itself. At the very least, the FPÖ would use a Hofer in the President's Office to pressurise the government by blocking its legislation and creating a situation of "ungovernability", which would bring the "old parties" to their knees.

Van der Bellen as an alternative?

Van der Bellen presents himself as the "moderate" alternative for all "democrats". He argues that if one wants to prevent an FPÖ victory, one must elect him, the moderate, independent candidate with roots in the Green Party.
But beware: Van der Bellen is just the sort of anti-FPÖ medicine that has fed the growth of the FPÖ over the years.

Van der Bellen's alternative to the FPÖ is an extended version of the past: a Grand Coalition plus the Green Party, and anyone else who is not the FPÖ. If, after the next parliamentary elections, there is no absolute majority for the SPÖ and ÖVP together, the Greens could be brought into a coalition by a President van der Bellen. In this way, he could prevent an FPÖ chancellorship, but only at the price of an even broader "Grand Coalition", which would continue with the policies that have driven the working class into demoralisation or to the right.

Such an arrangement would only delay the collapse of the current system of class collaboration, with the added danger that, by then, the working class movement and its existing organisations (trade unions, SPÖ) would be even weaker than they already are. Certainly, one should not expect a pro-working class policy from van der Bellen. He advocates privatisation, “flexibilisation” of labour laws and an end to free access to the universities. Migrants and refugees should also not expect any significant improvements, although he supports asylum for "refugees", he is against allowing entry into the EU by “economic migrants”.

Unlike a candidate of a bourgeois workers' party, whose promises could be put to the test of office and who would be under pressure from the working class through trade unions, the party's mass membership, historical and cultural ties and supporters, van der Bellen would be free of any such pressure. Indeed, he could present the presidency in a more active interpretation, presenting himself as the arbitrator of such a coalition, independent of parliamentary majorities.

In the face of an imminent victory by Hofer, many on the left, and in the trade unions and the SPÖ, will consider voting for van der Bellen in the second round on May 22 as the "lesser of two evils". This would be a political mistake. It would allow the FPÖ to present itself as the only force outside the “Greater Coalition cartel", the only force against all the "old parties".

It would also mean binding the trade unions and the SPÖ to a continued coalition with the ÖVP, a racist and anti-working class government policy and to paralysis of the social-democratic membership and voters.

The first demand to be raised, therefore, particularly on their more Leftist and militant elements, is that the trade unions and the SPÖ should break with the politics of class collaboration, the racist policies of the government and the coalition with the ÖVP and all other non-working class parties. Otherwise, it will be difficult to prevent a further shift to the right.

Analysis of the election results suggests that, compared to 2013, when there were 1.26 million votes for the SPÖ, the party lost 202,000 to van der Bellen, 169,000 to Hofer and 122,000 to Griss. Only 462,000 voted for Hundstorfer, while 303,000 abstained from voting altogether.

Beyond the second round

Thus, some half a million SPÖ voters, mainly working class people, either abstained or voted for van der Bellen. They could play a very important role in the coming period in the struggle against the racist FPÖ. If Hofer wins on May 22, Austria may well enter a round of mass mobilisations, even though they may not initially be of the same size as those against the ÖVP-FPÖ-coalition in 2000.

In any event, it will be decisive to act quickly, so that the FPÖ loses the initiative. That, however, would require a common mobilisation of all working class organisations, including the trade unions and the SPÖ, the left and migrant organisations against the new President and, at the same time, complete political independence from the racist and anti-working class politics of the SPÖ in government.

In the case of a victory by van der Bellen, the main danger would be different. It would not be paralysis faced with another victory of the right, but complacency, the danger that “everything may be back to normal”. Such passivity would be a gift to the FPÖ. Mass mobilisation against the continued racist politics of the SPÖ/ÖVP-coalition and against the racist FPÖ would be required.

In any event, the defeat in the first round has already had important consequences for the SPÖ. On May Day, when the main rally is traditionally organised by the SPÖ, it was already clear that Faymann was isolated within the party. When the crowed booed him, the Vienna leadership only responded with a lukewarm call on the members to cheer “their Chancellor.”

In the days following, regional party leaders openly described “their chairman” as the “worst option” for the post of Chancellor in the country. Having so obviously lost the support of his own party, and having had to admit this publicly, Faymann finally resigned on May 9.

The speed of his downfall underlined the fact that he never had a strong base within the party. He was, rather, the resultant of the different pressure groups and factions within the party who acted as the “arbiter” between them. Once they all agreed that he was no longer useful in that role, he fell. In his place, the SPÖ leaders have agreed on Christian Kern, the 50 year old manager of the state run Austrian railways, a “smart” social democratic manager who nevertheless came to his post as a result of the system of social partnership rather than anything else.

Like Faymann, Kern has no clearly defined faction around him. He will be formally appointed Chancellor on May 17. Until now, he has not issued any statement on his future policy regarding any of the burning issues of Austrian and European politics, apart from a “commitment” to the existing Coalition with the ÖVP. Clearly, his “leadership” will not solve the crisis and inner conflicts within the SPÖ, at best it will only suppress them until the next election debacle.

The right wing of the SPÖ and some trade union leaders are now calling for a “more flexible” approach to the FPÖ. Others continue to reject collaboration with the FPÖ at the federal level, but refrain from attacking the racist politics of the SPÖ-led government or even start to concede to the right on the “FPÖ-question”. Moreover, this is not only a dividing line within the SPÖ, but also in the trade unions, which are still dominated by the social democracy. Indeed, some of the trade union bureaucrats are to the fore in calling for a “less strict” policy towards the FPÖ.

Unlike in the past, this emerging crisis in the SPÖ could threaten its very existence as a party. Of course, this process may be “contained” from above for a period, solved via “compromises” between different wings of the party, but this will not halt the permanent decline of the SPÖ and therefore will only prolong its agony

The left wing of the SPÖ and trade unions, who want to fight, have to stop “moderating” their criticism. Just as the SPÖ has adapted to the ruling class for decades, so the left in the party has adapted to the right wing. It has avoided any open struggle against the racist turn of the government and against the Grand Coalition. Indeed, it has largely remained passive rather than fighting the politics of the SPÖ in government or mobilising against it on the streets.

We demand from those forces that they break from such passive politics and openly fight against the right and racist wing and the supporters of the “Grand Coalition” in the SPÖ and without refraining from a break with those forces. Such a development could not only lay the foundations for a serious resistance against the government and the FPÖ, it would also put those social democrats and unionists who claim that they want to fight the rightward drift in the country, to the test.

Politically, this would not only require a break with the governmental policy of the SPÖ of the past decades, but also with the reformist foundations of social democracy itself, including its “left” variants. In this case, the catastrophe of April 24 could open the way for a political re-orientation of larger sections of the left, both within and outside the SPÖ, towards genuine working class politics and the foundation of a revolutionary working class party.