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The Austrian Election: No Change?

ScreenHunter_01 Oct. 10 19.11The Austrian elections effectively brought no changes. Basically, everything ended up as before, with the Social Democrats (SD) winning with 26.8% of the vote and the conservative Peoples’ Party (PP) and the right wing Freedom Party (FP) ending up second and third (with 24% and 20.5% respectively). The Green Party (GP) finished a disappointing fourth, only gaining 2% at the ballot boxes. New in parliament is the small but successful NEOS (New Austria Party), essentially a younger splinter from the PP. Team Stronach, a rather confusing ‘party’ – mainly a vehicle for its founder, Austrian-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach – also secured representation.

For outsiders the results may sound confusing, so let’s provide you with some analysis of the different players, shall we? Let’s start with the small parties:

NEOS – they are mostly a party of middle age, white-male media professionals. It’s interesting that while in Germany the liberals were voted out of parliament, the same party in Austria was voted into parliament. Their program should be no surprise: privatization, cutting social security and a ‘pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps’ rhetoric. On the other hand, they do not really care for social liberal policies like marriage equality. They are thus essentially a younger and hipper version of the boring PP. Another bourgeois party in favor of cutting social spending! Is that what was really missing in Austria’s parliament?

austria-2013-imageTeam Stronach – it’s not easy to explain to outsiders what happened here. Basically a billionaire was bored and bought himself some MPs to play with. He spent lots of money for a rather disappointing election result. It turns out the biggest turn off was the billionaire himself, who wanted to reintroduce the death penalty in Austria (for ‘professional killers’ if you need to know). Well, after the election the whole thing is falling apart and the billionaire ‘wants his money back.’ I really cannot explain it any less absurdly. It’s quite possible that its MPs will join the PP or FP.

Green Party – a general misunderstanding suggests that the Green Party is somehow leftist. Hint: They are not. Their whole election campaign was based on questions of morality and being ‘less stupid’ (yes that actually was a slogan!) than the other parties. ‘Clean politics’ and a ‘clean environment,’ that is all they stood for. They did not raise questions of social security or austerity. They are morally superior to everyone else on the planet and that’s enough for them! They were surprised that they didn’t finish third as they had expected. No, they were disappointed, once again, with ‘the best election result a Green Party has ever achieved in a national election.’ Unfortunately, they dumped their only truly left MP, Karl Öllinger (who is an expert on questions of social security, the welfare state, and is also a true antifascist).

Freedom Party – it’s funny how prior to the election everyone thought they were down for the count, but nevertheless they managed to produce a strong showing in the elections. The campaign was not really provocative for those used to their ‘normal’ campaigning approach (perhaps Austrians have become desensitized to them by now). Nevertheless, they still managed to gain votes. In Styria they finished first. And of course the narrative from the SD and GP, was about how ‘stupid’ FP voters are and what a ‘shame’ Styria is. But that is only because they do not address the issues that the FP tackles. There is a rather large working class population in the small industrial cities of upper Styria. A majority of them voted for the FP. That has nothing to do with stupidity. In fact the FP raises social issues in ways that no other party in Austria does. Of course, they infuse their own narrative into the discourse, steeped as it is with deeply nationalist and racist rhetoric. But if no other party is addressing social issues the field is being left wide-open for the extreme right to capitalize on. Of course, the FP are not a genuine working class party. Instead of classes they think in terms of nations and races. Instead of class struggle they want a Volksgemeinschaft. Their scapegoats are Muslims, immigrants and the political left (basically everyone but themselves).

Peoples Party – they are as they have always been. A party guarding the interests of rich people, no matter if they are business people, bankers or large landowners. As long as you’re rich (and Catholic) that’s your party. They’ve lost some charm and are now synonymous for spitefulness and standstill. But there are enough people in this country who still identify as rich (and Catholic), so they still managed to finish a close second.

Social Democrats – Their cunning plan was to loose less than the others and thereby defend their first spot. They did defend it by only dropping 2.44% from their previous result (which is still more than the PP). They can now sip champagne and claim victory. The most likely next step is to maintain the Grand Coalition they’ve forged with the PP. That should be enough to tell you how bleak the perspective is. If the Grand Coalition continues, the FP will only get stronger and take first place in the next election cycle. The SD provides no perspective for working class people. They have no interest in fighting the extreme right at any level (for example, there is no exit program for neo-Nazis, just saying…). They do not see the threat that a party like the FP poses for various communities, principally for immigrants. Working class immigrants are in the weakest position of all, since no one in Austrian politics speaks for them, they have no right to vote while their environment becomes increasingly hostile. Those are exactly the people a real working class party should empower, organize and represent. The SD has repeatedly failed to do so.

All in all the results are neither surprising nor has anything dramatically changed. But it shows us what lies ahead in Austrian politics: two ‘large’ parties increasingly losing ground with every election. On the other hand, a right wing party continues gaining ground while a ‘goody-two-shoes’ Green Party is too occupied with turning everything into a scandal instead of analyzing the social basis of election results and acting accordingly. And then there are a few ever changing and freaky bourgeois splinter parties. Do you see what’s still missing from this picture? Yes, a party of the left that actually represents those affected by the crisis, those who fear for their jobs or have already lost them. Building a left party that does not live in ignorance or fear of the FP but challenges them directly on their racist answers to the economic crisis and austerity measures is now necessary.

By Natascha Strobl

Natascha Strobl is a political scientist and antifascist activist from Vienna, active with Offensive gegen Rechts. She writes her own blog about right wing extremism – (in German).