National Sections of the L5I:

New coalition government is a betrayal by social democracy

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

In January the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) agreed to form a new government. In itself this is nothing surprising. Most people expected it and similar coalitions have governed Austria for most of the post-war period.

But then something very unusual happened. In the days before the inauguration there was a public outcry against the programme of the new government. On the day of the inauguration itself several thousand gathered at Ballhausplatz, outside the official residence of the chancellor and the president, and heckled the new ministers crossing the square.

Of course we couldn’t stop the inauguration but the whole country felt that an opposition to this ruling class government was already forming on the streets. Opinion polls showed that never before had a new government so little popular confidence. A week later 4,000 students took to the streets of Vienna, Graz and Linz to protest against the decision to maintain university fees.

What caused these surprising events? First and foremost the open and shameless betrayal by the leadership of the SPÖ of all its election pledges. They won the elections (in fact they lost votes, but fewer than the open bourgeois party, the ÖVP, which lost 8% of their votes) thanks to their promise to repeal the worst attacks on social welfare, public services and education over the last six years. Most explicitly they promised to abolish university fees, to cancel the contract to buy expensive, new warplanes, and to increase pensions and social welfare.

But it rapidly became clear that the SPÖ had not fulfiled a single one of these promises. The new government’s programme is nakedly the continuation of that of the former right wing government. Former finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, expressed his total satisfaction with the new government: “This programme is excellent because it is the continuation of the Wende“. The expression Wende (turn) is mediaspeak means neoliberalism.

To add insult to injury the SPÖ leadership also agreed to hand over all the most important ministries to the conservative party: the Finance, Economy and Labour, Interior, and Foreign Ministries. The “winners” of the election turned out to be the losers of the coalition negotiations - big time.

These events have enormously discredited Social Democracy and its leader Dr Alfred Gusenbauer. The most popular slogan at the demonstrations was the old communist slogan “Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten” (“Who has betrayed us? Social Democrats“), now chanted by members of the social democratic members! Workers and, particularly, youth outside and inside the party have risen up against the party leadership.

All this happens against the background the SPÖ adapting, more and more, to the neoliberal model of capitalism. Symbolically the last two chairmen of the party went on to become chief executives in multinational corporations. The influence of the trade unions have been reduced and, since 1990, the party has lost half its membership.

Where next?
But the January Days have ended now without concrete results. The reason for this is a twofold crisis of leadership: in the trade unions, and in the party’s youth and student organisations. On one hand the trade union bureaucracy - closely linked to the SPÖ - hopes for a more prominent role in policy making after the dog days of exclusion during the past six years of right wing government. At its recent congress in January it suppressed all criticism and hailed the new government.

The union bureaucracy itself is massively discredited among its membership since it scandalously lost the unions’ entire financial reserves, including its strike funds, thanks to the financial speculation of its bank. This had now had to be sold off to a US hedge fund called Cerberus, headed by George Bush’s former finance minister!

On the other hand the official leadership of the university students and youth (mostly Social Democratic and Green Party youth organisations) has no interest in building a mass protest movement - demonstrations, strikes and occupations - involving their members together with workers in the trade unions. The Social Democratic youth leaders prefer to build a left wing inside the party to get more posts in the future, while the university student union tops only want to use the protests to gain votes in the May elections to the student parliament.

ArbeiterInnenstandpunkt, the Austrian section of the League for the Fifth International, and Revolution, the socialist youth group, have been at the heart of the protest movement. Our well-organised and militant contingent got massive publicity in the bourgeois media. (For pictures look at our home page We sold more than 130 papers and made a number of new contacts.

Revolution published an Open Letter to the Social Democratic youth, calling for the independence of the youth organisations from the party (see We argued for unity between university students, school students and workers, and in favour of joint demonstrations, strikes and occupations. The time has now come to call for a new party of the workers and youth, and to agitate for concrete steps to build it.

The January Days have opened a new political phase in Austria. The neoliberalisation of the SPÖ has now been demonstrated for all to see, and provoked mass demonstrations. Though the first cycle of protests seems to be over, it is clear that this will be a weak and discredited government from the very beginning.

Combined with this, there are clear signs that the militant left wing of Social Democracy, especially its youth, can be broken from the party and won to the project of building a new workers’ party. The coming months and years are sure to provide plenty of opportunities for revolutionaries to fight alongside these activists, and others outside the SPÖ’s ranks and help them to complete their break with reformism and win them to revolutionary socialism.