Austria after the elections: the only way forward is an SPÖ minority government

The extreme right has risen again in Austria leaving many shocked. In reality what we have in Austria is growing political instability with swings to the left and the right as successive governments come up against the opposition of ordinary working people. Meanwhile there is ferment in the unions and within the ranks of the Social Democracy, the SPÖ.

Like back in 2006 the SPÖ emerged as the strongest party in the Austrian parliament in Sunday's elections. However, with only 29,7% this is its worst election result since 1945. In the industrial towns and the working class districts of Vienna the SPÖ suffered huge losses.

It is true that compared to the heavy losses in the recent regional elections in the Tyrol and Lower Austria the party was able to avoid the worst-case scenario. In the final weeks of the electoral campaign the SPÖ managed to partially turn the wheel around.

How did they manage this? The party leadership leaned once again on its trade union wing and put forward an action plan against inflation and falling living standards. If it had followed the old path of class collaboration with the Conservatives then the SPÖ would have been the big loser in these elections. It was its union wing which was able to mobilise the core of the labour movement and get workers out to the polling stations.

A black eye for the SPÖ

In spite of this last minute effort, one cannot ignore the fact that the labour movement has been heavily weakened after 18 months of the Grand Coalition government with the Conservatives. This experience has led to a sever crisis for Social Democracy. Apart from the links it has to the unionised workforce in big industries, the SPÖ has lost its authority over the working class as a whole. It is a condemnation of their policies that especially among the young workers the extreme right wing could gain a majority of the votes.

Werner Faymann
Werner Faymann, chairman of the SPÖ

It is precisely this crisis within the Social Democracy that has allowed for a revival of the extreme right wing, which is split into two parties (the FPÖ under the leadership of HC Strache and the ultra-right splinter group, the BZÖ, under the historical leader Jörg Haider). This extreme right wing was literally on its knees after four years in a coalition with the Conservatives between 2003 and 2007. In that period the right wing populists clearly revealed to all which side they were really on.

However, now thanks to the political sell-out of the SPÖ, Strache and Haider have been able once again to gain ground with their mix of social demagogy, racism and "austro-patriotism". Strache especially has become the voice of all those who have become frustrated with the SPÖ and want to protest against a political elite which shows little interest in the real problems of ordinary working people.

As could be expected, internationally and among left-wing intellectuals we can hear again the hue and cry and the moral outrage at this "turn to the right" of "the Austrians". But that is an extremely superficial way of looking at the situation. We have to see understand the reasons for this new rise of the extreme right wing. It is directly linked to the social issues, the generalised resentment because of price hikes, worsening living standards, and so on. The vacuum left by the SPÖ and the ÖGB (the Austrian trade union confederation) has now been filled again by Strache's reactionary demagogic slogans.

On the other hand, the leading force within the bourgeois camp, the People's Party (ÖVP), was heavily defeated in Sunday's elections, also reaching a historical low point. Vice-Chancellor Molterer presented himself as the only force of reason in these difficult times, not understating that their "neo-liberal" positions have lost any influence they may have had in the past. Many people (also from a conservative background) can directly feel in their daily life the worsening social conditions. The ÖVP cannot lead the country with an openly pro-bourgeois programme. The capitalist class itself is a too small a minority in society. Under the conditions of growing economic crisis it will find it very difficult to gather other social layers around its programme of austerity and cuts. It is all this that explains the historical crisis of the ÖVP after 21 years in power.

Wilhelm Molterer
Wilhelm Molterer stepped down from his position as chairman of the ÖVP after the elections

In these conditions a sectarian mind would be expecting to see anything to the left of the SPÖ growing. But the truth is always concrete! The forces to the left of the SPÖ remained completely marginalised in these elections. The Communist Party of Austria   already historically very weak - lost even more votes and did not rise above 0,7%. The newly formed "Linke" ("Left"), a coalition of several ultra-left sects that came together on the basis of an extremely opportunist and reformist programme, only managed to muster a meagre 0,04%. These concrete facts reveal once again that there is nothing outside the organised labour movement.

An analysis of the election results of the past ten years reveals one very important fact: there is enormous volatility now in this country which once had an extremely stable political system. In the past every election would produce landslide results. Now, instability has become more and more the feature of the political system in Austria. These election results are not an expression of a "shift to the right", but rather a confused attempt on the part of an increasing layer of the population to find a way out of the social and political crisis this country is facing. The contradiction between the interests of the overwhelming majority in society and a political elite, which is subordinated to the logic of the capitalist system, is obvious for all to see and is producing a major crisis in the political system itself.

Where is Austria going now?

The Conservatives forced through this early election because they wanted a clear mandate for the future. What they wanted was a government without the SPÖ. The reason for this is clear. As long as the Social Democracy is exposed to the pressure from the unions and its traditional social basis, the organised working class, for the bourgeois it cannot be a reliable force to govern the country. The aim was clearly to establish a new right-wing bourgeois government under the leadership of the ÖVP. But this strategy was soundly defeated in the elections.

The SPÖ leadership is now calling for a revival of the Grand Coalition with what they see as an ÖVP which has learned its lesson and is now prepared to govern together. They do this with the belief that there exists a liberal, "progressive", wing of the ÖVP which is looking for a return to the good old days of social partnership. This ignores the fact that a new ÖVP party leadership will soon be elected now under Josef Pröll. This new ÖVP leadership is not one that will be open to a policy of social and democratic reforms. Already the powerful Federation of Austrian Industry has come out with a statement explaining that this election result cannot be interpreted as a mandate for a new Grand Coalition. The industrialists have made it clear that they will decide their support for any future coalition government strictly according to its own criteria. This means that they will only support a government that continues with the line of the past years, a policy of severe cuts, privatisation and "liberalisation".

Jörg Haider (photo by Dieter Zirnig)
Jörg Haider, chairman of the BZÖ

The ÖVP is and remains the political voice of the bourgeois class in Austria. We are now facing a major economic crisis, which everyone can feel already. The "golden years" are definitely over. The bourgeoisie is preparing for a deep crisis. For quite some time they have tried to "put lipstick on the pig". They have argued that the Austrian banks will not be hit by the US financial crisis because of its dominant role in Eastern Europe. But now the bubble is also starting to burst in Russia and Eastern Europe. This will lead to a fall in profits also in the Austrian banking sector. And in many industries we can already see the first effects of the credit crunch and plummeting exports. Most factories have already announced massive lay-offs. This has become the major threat to Austrian workers.

So far the unions and the SPÖ have not come up with any answers to this problem. They view it as a "law of nature" that one can do nothing to change. So, under these conditions the bourgeois will stick to a clear line: Austria must remain a reliable part of the EU, with tax reforms for the rich, and no money for social reforms.

A new Grand Coalition will only be possible if the SPÖ is prepared once again to sell out everything like it did in 2006/7. The party leadership is probably willing to do this, but this will lead to a very turbulent development within the Social Democracy leading to the formation of a left wing. And this time it will not be only the socialist youth organisations (the SPÖ youth) that will protest, but we will see trade unionists leading this left wing.

They will be aware of the fact that under the present economic conditions the working class can achieve its aims only with the methods of class struggle and this requires a break with class collaboration. The Marxists will play their role in the formation of an opposition against a new Grand Coalition and any compromises with the right wing

Of course the party leadership will argue that the only alternative to a renewed Grand Coalition would be a coalition between the ÖVP and the extreme right wing, who together have a clear majority. Jörg Haider is clearly offering his services for such a coalition. Already within the ÖVP some have already raised the idea of forming such a coalition. And many activists within the Austrian labour movement look back in anger at the previous right-wing coalition. They see it is a clear threat to the conquests of the past.

In spite of all this, we cannot issue a blank cheque to the SPÖ leadership so that they can sign form a coalition, which would be a copy of previous experiences based on the ÖVP party programme. Such a sell out would only prepare the ground for a future election victory of the extreme right wing.

On the other hand, some within the SPÖ are call for a more open approach towards the extreme right wing. They argue that many workers voted for these parties and therefore we should not redline them. But any kind of coalition with the FPÖ would lead to a split of the SPÖ, as many would reject such open betrayal.

The only way forward

The only way forward for the labour movement would be an SPÖ minority government. The basic starting point of the SPÖ has to be: "we only stand for the interests of working people".

In this recent election campaign the SPÖ has already shown that this could be a realistic strategy. By presenting a programme of social reforms in parliament the SPÖ could work to gain a majority among the wider population. Even as a minority, some of these reforms could even get through parliament with the help of forces like the Green. On some questions even the MPs of the extreme right wing might vote in favour for their own demagogic reasons. If, as would be most likely on other issues, these parties did not support an SPÖ programme of genuine reforms than they would expose themselves as pro-bourgeois and anti-working class, and this would lead to a situation where they would very soon lose their support in society.

To back this up, and increase the pressure on the other parties, the trade unionists in the SPÖ parliamentary party would have to start a campaign of mobilisations in the workplaces and on the streets. Even this method was tried to a certain extent during the election campaign. The social offensive within parliament would have to be linked to an offensive on the extra-parliamentary level. Working class people and the youth have to see that the SPÖ is committed to its programme.

What the SPÖ needs now is a programme of action to fight inflation, massive lay-offs and privatisation. Around such a programme the unions and youth could mobilise for a social offensive. In order to shift the balance of forces to the left we have to struggle. Our methods have to be mass meetings, rallies and strikes. If the labour movement fights now in a decisive manner, then it can weaken the right wing once again.

This necessary course will only prevail if a strong organised left can be built over the next period. During the election campaign the Marxists met dozens of shop stewards and trade unionists who seek such a shift to the left. On October 11th we are organising a "Conference of the Left" to bring together all these activists. This will be the opening shot of a campaign for an SPÖ minority government with a socialist programme based on the trade unions and social movements.

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