Red Vienna is back again!

After an "interregnum" of five years the Social Democrats regained an absolute majority on the council of "Red Vienna". Vienna has a symbolic value for the Austrian labour movement. Ever since the democratic revolution of 1918 this city has been governed by the Social Democrats, with just two interruptions: the period of Austro-Fascism, followed by the Nazi regime (1934-1945), and the period from 1996 to 2001, when the party lost its absolute majority and collaborated with the weak Conservative party. Now the Social Democracy is back again. But will they be able to live up to the expectations of the workers who voted for them?

After an "interregnum" of five years the Social Democrats regained an absolute majority on the council of "Red Vienna". Vienna has a symbolic value for the Austrian labour movement. Ever since the democratic revolution of 1918 this city has been governed by the Social Democrats, with just two interruptions: the period of Austro-Fascism, followed by the Nazi regime (1934-1945), and the period from 1996 to 2001, when the party lost its absolute majority and collaborated with the weak Conservative party. Now the Social Democracy is back again.

The Austro-Hungarian empire was smashed during a wave of revolutionary struggles conducted by the working class and the oppressed nations. As elsewhere, the class-collaborationist SPO leaders were the most decisive pillar of the teetering capitalist power. During those events their slogan was "50% plus one vote" as the ticket for introducing socialism. With this parliamentary strategy they were never able to break the grip of the Church over the poor farmers. It was only thanks to the big post-war boom, after the horrors of Fascism and War, that this aim was achieved. The development of industry attracted huge numbers of small farmers into the factories and turned them into proletarians, and thus into Social Democrats.

During the uneasy inter-war period it was only in the city of Vienna that the "50%" strategy was put into practice. By imposing high levels of taxation on the rich and on luxury goods, the city council was able to raise the necessary resources to implement a policy of magnificent social reforms. The slums in the workers’ districts were replaced with modern council houses with water, electricity and plenty of sunlight. Swimming pools, libraries, theatres, and sports centres for recreation and education, were built. Progressive reforms in education were carried out. Workers could even have their own small gardens. Every aspect of life including such varied subjects as nudism and intellectual debates were discussed in the many Social Democratic front organisations. And on many occasions the workers’ own paramilitary formation, the "Schutzbund", would be seen marching through the working class neighbourhoods.

Thus the city of Vienna became the shining example of a socialist future. Without the prestige of "Red Vienna" it would have been much harder for the "Austro-Marxist" party leadership to maintain its control over the Austrian labour movement, which on many occasions had shown initiative and a willingness to overthrow the capitalist system as a whole.

However, the concept of ‘socialism in one city’ carried within itself a major flaw. As Illia Ehrenburg, the well known correspondent of the Communist International, pointed out, the Social Democratic City administration was built on sand - instead of taxing the rich, it should have expropriated the capitalists. So at the first chance it got, the bourgeoisie turned the cannons on the workers’ council estates and killed more than a thousand workers in Vienna and in other towns of Austria. This happened in February 1934, when Austro-Fascism came to power over the bones of the Austrian working class, after two decades of class-war.

After this period of dark repression had passed (1945) Vienna could once more play the role of model. However, during the post-war boom class conflict could be softened through social compromise. From the end of the 1950s onwards this was easily achieved through a system called "Sozialpartnerschaft", where nearly all the gains were achieved through negotiations between the capitalists and the trade union bureaucracy.

With the end of the post-war boom this system began to break down. This is one of the main reasons for the rise of the reactionary FPO. To this day the trade-union and Social Democratic leaders have tried to stay in the same boat with the capitalists, although this no longer achieves any gains for the workers and their families. It is mainly among a layer of frustrated workers and youth (and some horrible yuppie types) that the FPO gets its electoral support.

Thus, especially in their traditional strongholds in Vienna, we witnessed an important fall in votes for the Social Democrats. Their electoral support fell from more than 60% to less than 39% in the 1996 council elections! In a coalition with the Conservative Party (OVP) they started to implement a programme of privatisations, downsizing of municipal services and companies, including the Bank of Austria with all its industrial units. Significantly they took the decision to run the public transport system on Mayday. This was seen as a further retreat on the part of the SPO under the increasing pressure of the bourgeois parties.

These council elections represented mainly a vote against the policies of the right-wing federal government. The introduction of tuition fees, cuts in the pension system and the health service, and a retreat in the field of ideology (women’s rights, anti-democratic counter-reforms, etc.) led to a sharp turn in the political climate. Support for the government, especially for the FPO, was falling further with every new plan to cutback on the welfare state.

Already the opinion polls were indicating that the FPO could expect a clear defeat. It was under these conditions that they took the decision that Jorg Haider should play a major role in the election campaign. In this situation the FPO once again played the racist and anti-Semitic card. Moreover they used scare-mongering tactics saying that these elections could bring a Red-Green council to power, which would lead to a policy of legalising drugs, traffic chaos and a new wave of immigration.

On the other hand, the SPO for the first time in years, had tried to put forward an alternative view, by criticising the attacks of the right-wing government, presenting themselves as the only alternative. Especially on the ideological front, the SPO no longer gave complete support to the reactionary positions of the bourgeois.

The election results brought about a real political earthquake:

SPO 46,8% (+7,7%) 
OVP 16,3% (+1,1%) 
FPO 20,25% (-7,7%) 
Greens 12,45% (+4,5%) 
Liberals 3,46% (-4,5%)

With this result the SPO was even able to take an absolute majority of the seats in the city council. Some important developments can be seen from an analysis of the results. The SPO won especially in the workers’ districts, the traditional "red" strongholds. In most of these districts, and even more so in the big council house estates (like the famous Karl-Marx-Hof), the SPO vote was as high as 60% or more. Among the workers the SPO has regained an absolute majority of votes. Three out of four workers voted for the SPO. The SPO also became the strongest party among young workers and youth in general. It is also clear now, that the SPO mobilised many "neo-Austrians" (workers who were not born in Austria, and the youth of the second and third generations). By the way: all the groups that tried to build a "left alternative" to the SPO could not get more than 0,7% of the vote!

This was mainly a result of the way the SPO mobilised its members and activists. Like in the "good old days" the Social Democrats tried to involve its symphathizers in the election campaign, rather than the spin-doctors of the past few years. The active structures of the party made this victory possible.

This victory has raised the self-confidence of the party activists. Starting from this result, we can build up the struggle against the right-wing government once more. Already in the weeks before the elections we saw the spontaneous movement of the teachers, the telecom workers, and the workers in the petrol industry against job losses.

These elections have shown that the people are fed up with this government. However, although many supporters and activists of the SPO were enthused by the success of the party, it was clear that the high ranking officials were not. With an absolute majority, they feel pressurised to fulfill their election slogans, which, although they were kept quite vague, did go in a clear direction: "education must not be a privilege of the rich", against privatisation of the council flats and municipal companies, no to the reactionary turn against women, etc. They no longer need to form a coalition with the OVP or the Greens. And yet the mayor, Michael Haupl, called these two parties to form a coalition government with the SPO! For the previous five years they were always telling us that it was not possible to put forward socialist policies because of the coalition with the Conservatives. Now that they finally have an absolute majority they are again calling for a coalition!

The federal government itself has been hit hard by this defeat and is in crisis. Even sections of the right wing parties have now started to question some of the more brutal cuts carried out in the last few months. Jorg Haider himself, who played an active part in the election campaign, "caught the flu" just after he saw the first polls on the TV screens. For three days no one was able to get him on the phone. Meanwhile there was a party executive meeting of the FPO which went on for hours and hours without taking any decisions. There are some splits in the party, but this will not mean the end of the coalition. The FPO has to show big business its willingness to participate in the bourgeois government, even though they are continuing to lose electoral support.

The victory of the Social Democratic party represents a blow against the reactionary bourgeois government. But these reactionary gentlemen have already made it clear that they have no intention of changing their policies. On the other hand high-ranking SPO officials are intent on slowing down the programme of counter-reforms, but without denying the bourgeois idea that you have to have a balanced budget.

With these ideas, over a short period of time, the SPO leadership will frustrate the membership. It’s up to the trade unions to take advantage of this moment and to start a serious mobilisation against the reactionary government and its policies. If this is not done, then this election victory will once more prove to be "built on sand", to take up the analogy of Ehrenburg.