"Widerstand! Widerstand!" - "Resistance! Resistance!" - that was the main slogan of the protest wave which has been shaking Austria for more than three weeks. When it became clear that the conservative Peoples Party (ÖVP) was to form a coalition with the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Jörg Haider, this sharp political turn sparked a spontaneous movement never seen before in Austria.
Every day thousands of people met in front of the headquarters of the ÖVP or in front of the office of the prime minister. On the day of the swearing of the new government there were three different demonstrations of several thousand people each. One of them occupied the ministry of social affairs. Political ferment was on the streets. All over the city (and not only in Vienna), on the internet, on the radio, everywhere people started to discuss about politics. The movement affected not only students and youth but people of all ages and social origin. Everywhere you can see people wearing stickers to show their protest against the new government. This was obviously the beginning of the most important social movement in Austria since 1968.
So why are people protesting? The main reason of the demonstrations is to say no to a coalition with the FPÖ. People are disgusted by the racist policies and the attempts of Haider and his party to play down the crimes of the nazi regime. The movement is very much confused and there is a clear lack of a political perspective. Most of the people participating in the demonstrations are politically active for the first time in their lives. The movement is still mainly on the level of a moral protest against racism, against intolerance, against all the conservative ideologies the FPÖ stands for. It wants to show the European Union that there is also another Austria which is "different", that not all Austrians are evil.
Most of the people who are against this government have no clear idea of their character and why it was possible that the FPÖ could enter the coalition. They blame Schüssel, the leader of the ÖVP, arguing that for personal reasons he wanted to become the new prime minister. We do not want to underestimate the role of personalities in social processes but it is a fact that the last elections represented a shif to the right in Austria. The ruling class gained confidence and were ready to kick the SPÖ out and to risk forming an openly bourgeois coalition in order to launch a severe attack on the living and working conditions of the working class. The programme of the new government is more or less the same as the failed agreement between SP and ÖVP. As we already explained after the elections, whatever government was to be formed it was clear that it would have a programme of austerity to satisfy the needs of the Austrian bourgeoisie.
What we have seen up until now is mainly an "uprising of the civil society", as one of the leading organizers of these demos said. Especially among the youth we can see a willingness to fight against the right-wing government. The big demonstration on the 19th of February in Vienna was the first peak of the movement. Even the police gave the figure of 150,000 people participating. The organizers (the Democratic Offensive and SOS Mitmensch, both a medley of prominent artists, ex-politicians etc.) said 250-300,000! And they were probably right.
However, the most important development is the increasing participation of the trade unions in these protests. At the beginning of the protest wave the trade unions took part in the demonstrations with a sizeable number of activists. The trade union bureaucracy did not support the daily demonstrations but concentrated all their energy in mobilising for the big demonstration in Vienna on February 19th. And indeed the unions were the backbone of the demonstration with tens of thousands of shop stewards and workers from all over the country. They even held their own rally in front of the parliament. The trains coming from the regions were full of trade union activists. The participation of the unions is focusing the protests against the government on the issue of the struggle against the planned cuts in the welfare state (pensions, health service, unemployment system, cuts in the public service, privatisations...) This is extremely important and could mean a qualitative step forward for the movement.
The union leaders obviously wanted to show the government that they are prepared to fight. In the last weeks lots of union leaders (especially in the railway workers unions) have been making fighting speeches and even threatened the government with strike action -something which was an absolute taboo in the times of "social partnership". Now of course they hope that the government will return to the old ways of negotiating with the unions. Until now, the government has made it clear that there is no alternative to all these severe cuts. Social partnership is definitely over in the form that we have known it for decades. For example, on the question of the reform of the pension system the government has called in some "experts" to plan the details. The unions will have the right to comment on the results, but there will be have no possibility to take part in this round table. At the moment the unions are waiting for the new budget which will be presented to the public within the next month. Then they will decide what to do. The mood among the union activists is in favour of strikes. On the big demonstration in Vienna we talked to many shop stewards who are prepared to fight but they are still waiting for the union leaders to take the first step. Regional shop stewards conferences have already taken place, but just to inform the rank and file rather than to plan the coming struggles.
An important initative was the school students strike in Vienna, brought forward by the SAP, a school students organisation. In the end a platform of several left-wing students organisations (including the social democratic AKS and the school student wing of one of the trade unions) was formed to organise the strike. Despite the fact that the ministry of education and most of the headmasters were against this strike and organised a campaign of intimidation in many schools, 10.000 students came to the demo. There was a big interest in political material and the mood was much better than in the student demos of the past years.
This was a further indication of the growing interest in politics and the willingness to get active among a whole layer of the youth. This school students strike was the first anti-government protest carried through, not by individuals coming together for a demonstration, but as a specific group in society putting forward concrete demands and opposing the plans of cuts and racist policies of the government in schools. This is big step forward for the movement. Up until now there has been no opportunity for the movement to became more organised, to give itself a structure, and where a discussion about a programme and perspectives can take place. People just came to the demos.
Of course public discussions were organised by the several groups but we still have an extremely spontaneous movement characterised by the anger and disgust felt by lots of people. They are prepared to fight but the form of the protest is certainly proof of the fact that people feel impotent. This shows in a very good way the limits of the so-called "civil society". The protests have created a radicalisation, where people are prepared to walk for hours (distances of 15-20 kilometres were normal at the daily demonstrations!) But apart from "Widerstand!" the movement did not find slogans or a real political alternative. This could change with the start of the new term at university. During February universities were closed due to the holidays. The Socialist Party and Communist Party students have already started to plan a mass meeting at the university of Vienna for the second week of March. If this is successful, the universities could become the new centre of the resistance against the new government. The mood among students is definitely promising.
We are still at the beginning of the movement. This movement which started as a wave of protests against racism will not limit itself to that. When it becomes clear that this government wants to enforce its plans of cuts then the movement could really reach a higher stage.
The role of the unions will be of enormous importance in this process. For the last 3-4 weeks Austrian politics was made in the streets. Parliament and the negotiations of the "social partners" were pushed to the background. However, on the level of traditional politics an important development took place. The Socialist Party has a new chairman. Viktor Klima and his party manager Rudas resigned when it was clear that the Socialist Party was being forced to leave the government after 30 years. This represented a big defeat for the Austrian followers of the "Third Way".
At the beginning it seemed that Karl Schlögl, the former minister of the interior, was going to be the successor of Klima. He was the symbol of the racist immigration laws passed under the SP-dominated government and he was also the representative of those in the party who wanted a cooperation between the SP and the FP. It seemed that he would get a majority within the party but then a wave of protest in the rank and file and especially among the trade unions changed the whole situation. Schlögl withdrew from the contest and Alfred Gusenbauer was elected as the new chairman. He was the chairman of the Socialist Youth in the 80s when he was influenced by Austro-marxist and Stalinist ideas. But his politics have changed a lot since he became a good friend of Schlögl. But in any case he is seen as the representative of that wing of the party which wants to return to the "old social-democratic values".
In the election campaign he described himself as "Red Fred". In the first interviews he gave the impression of someone who wants to put into practice a more political way to lead the party. The SP now openly expresses its support for the anti-government protests. The rank and file seems to be happy with the new leadership. Gusenbauer is far from being the "Marxist" that the bourgeois press wants to present. However, the rank and file of the SP regard this change in the party leadership as a shift to the left and a return to the "good old days" of the SP. The developments within the SP will depend very much on the course of the ongoing movement.
One thing is clear, the formation of the new government marks an end to decades of "social partnership", and these massive protests mark the beginning of a new era in Austrian politics, an era in which class struggle will be back on the agenda.