On May 2019, the coalition government of the far-right FPÖ and the conservative ÖVP collapsed after a corruption scandal around the then-Vice Chancellor and leader of the FPÖ, HC Strache. Sebastian Kurz, who took over the ÖVP before the elections in 2017, has steered the party in the direction of the right-wing populism of the FPÖ. At the same time, he has tried to maintain a serious and pro-big business image.
By Sebastian Kugler, Socialist Left Party (CWI in Austria)
The latter forced Kurz to end the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition and call for new elections in autumn. He subsequently lost a no-confidence vote – the first time this has happened since the founding of the republic – which meant the installment of a technocratic government of “experts”.
But that did not weaken Kurz in the run-up to the new elections. On the contrary, with the more bourgeois layers of FPÖ supporters now looking towards an almost equally racist but more “serious” ÖVP, and with no serious opposition from the labour movement and the left, he won a decisive victory. Kurz won 37% of the vote, leading by a historic record margin of 15%.
Ironically, this makes the formation of a new government even more complicated. On the one hand, the openly pro-big business wing of the FPÖ around Norbert Hofer would like to continue the coalition and its programme of politics for the super-rich, even though the FPÖ lost almost 10% in the elections. But Hofer had to succumb to the pressure of other forces within the party around the far-right hardliner Herbert Kickl, who wants to rebuild the party in opposition.
On the other hand, Kurz openly says that he wants to continue the politics of the last government, but regrets that “the FPÖ is not up to the task”. In this sense, Kurz echoes the mood of the dominant factions of Austrian big business, which welcomed the brutal cuts and attacks on workers’ rights by the last government as well as its nationalist ideological offensive.
Theoretically, Kurz could enter a government with the “social democratic” SPÖ, which came in second place. But the SPÖ’s 22% marks another historic low for the ever-declining party, triggering once more an open crisis within it. Now, some within the SPÖ call for a “refoundation” and to go “back to the roots” of Social Democracy. But these calls lack a serious base that is willing to act and a programme to challenge the party apparatus. Just like the last few times, it will most probably end up as nothing but a storm in a teacup.
The SPÖ would be ready to enter a government, even at the price of further accelerating its downward spiral in future elections. This is because it is the political force that identifies the most with the need of the bourgeois state for “political stability”. Lacking historic roots within a certain faction of capitalism, it sees itself as the ideal political representation of national capital as a whole – as the party of the state. For the sake of “stability”, it is willing to sacrifice itself, as we have seen in Germany, where the SPD entered a coalition they knew they would lose from. However, given that Kurz styled his whole political project in contrast to the SPÖ, it would seem as a step back for him to bring the SPÖ back into government.
The last FPÖ-ÖVP coalition came to power to end the sluggish pace of the traditional coalition governments of the ÖVP and SPÖ. Given that the SPÖ’s power base relies on institutionalized “social partnership” between the unions and capital, it proved to be reliable ally for austerity politics, as long as it did not undermine the material power base of the SPÖ-leadership and the political stability of the state.
This put certain limits on the speed and intensity of austerity and nourished wishes for a “shock-doctrine” government to push through attacks. After the last government achieved some of these demands like the 12-hour working day (it is legal now to work more overtime, up to 12 hours a day/60 hours a week) and the restructuring of public health insurance with the aim of “saving money” (read: cut services), but also after showing its incapability to guarantee stability, it now seems that capital would rather face the next economic crisis with a government that might not be as fast, but is at least reliable.
The Greens, after being kicked out of Parliament in the 2017 elections, celebrated a triumphant return with the highest result for a Green party in Europe so far. However, this success was not so much actively achieved by the Greens, but was due to an external factor: the worldwide climate movement, which sparked consciousness around environmental issues. Even though the concrete politics of the party, which was still represented in numerous local and regional governments, are in no way really “green”, it was seen as the logical choice by many who were influenced by or active in the movement. The other factor was that the wish for a left wing opposition – which the SPÖ didn’t even pretend to be – was projected onto the party which was “missing” in Parliament after the takeover of Kurz.
An ÖVP-Green government would be welcomed by different layers of society: some might initially have illusions that the Greens will have a “taming” influence on Kurz. Those illusions could be nourished by Kurz’ flexibility in certain areas. Kurz is a neoliberal chameleon: in the past, he has already tried to present himself as progressive on questions of migration and gender, and then turned around completely. While such a government would not copy the openly racist and hardcore austerity course of its predecessor, it would also not reverse any of the cuts of the last period.
On the contrary, as it will operate within the capitalist framework in a period of again sharpening crises, it will need to cater to the interests of capital. Given the heavy reliance on exports, especially to Germany, this will mean the lowering of production costs to remain competitive on international markets. At the same time, the coming crisis will increase the need for a certain kind of state intervention – not in the sense of anti-cyclical Keynesian measures to boost consumption, but rather emergency bailouts for companies which are “too big to fail” and stimulus packages for parts of the Austrian industry which are highly specialized in certain areas to give them advantages in market competition. This could even mean investments in “green” energy, but they would not be of the nature or the size that would be necessary for a real transition towards renewable energy.
The election results are only a snapshot of developments in a certain framework. They don’t reflect a growing consciousness which exists that the political establishment will not solve the climate crisis or improve living standards. The last few years have seen the rebirth of strikes around collective bargaining demands in the metal sector and railways. In the social sector, workers have gone on strike for the past two years in a row, making it increasingly difficult for the union bureaucracy to stay in control. Nurses began to organize independently to fight for better working conditions and to put pressure on their union leadership. In total, thousands took part in weekly demonstrations against the last government over the last year. 120,000 marched against the 12-hour working day last summer in the biggest mobilization Austria had seen in decades – only to be surpassed by at least 150,000 on the streets for the Earth Strike this September.
New approach based on struggles needed to build a Left alternative
Especially amongst activist layers, the desire for a new left party is becoming more and more concrete. This is a step in the right direction and socialists should welcome this. But it is not enough to proclaim the need for a new workers party – the task is to show the way such a force can be built. With a number of regional elections coming up, the struggles and movements mentioned above need to be the starting point for the left when it comes to building a viable alternative on the electoral plain. This means breaking with the tradition of half-baked left-wing electoral alliances around the ever declining old communist party KPÖ, bureaucratically stitched together behind closed doors.
If the activists in the aforementioned struggles as well as political groups that have played a constructive role in them were to form alliances for the coming elections, it could represent a step towards a new workers party, even if they are not very successful in terms of votes. Escalating struggles around collective bargaining as well as fighting trade unionists and shop stewards organising alongside, and sometimes against, the trade union bureaucracy could weaken the bureaucracy and make room for a new layer of militant trade unionists who are willing to end the suffocating grip of the SPÖ over the unions.
The Socialist Left Party (CWI in Austria) stood in the most recent elections in the state of Upper Austria – not because we had any illusions in entering the Parliament, but to use the politicized character of the election period to raise a socialist programme and build our forces. With several new members and a stronger profile, we came out of the elections strengthened. On the streets, in the workplaces and on the ballots, the Socialist Left Party will be active in the coming months to build a working-class alternative to the next government of the rich, whatever it looks like.