Austria: snap elections and political explosions

Last Saturday, the Austrian government, made up of the main bourgeois party, ÖVP and right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), stepped down and announced re-elections. In a spontaneous demonstration, 10,000 people gathered in Vienna to celebrate. This is a setback for the bourgeois bloc, who have been diligently working on attacking the working class to prepare the capitalists for the next crisis.

But it was not the mobilised working class who brought down the government, and the capitalists and their politicians are adamant on continuing their agenda. The Left, starting with the Socialist Youth, must use this opening to bring down the bourgeois bloc for real.

On Friday evening, two German media sources published short excerpts of a several-hour-long, secretly filmed video. The Ibiza video features FPÖ politicians Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus hinting that corporations purchased favourable legislation via party donations. Strache named several Austrian corporations and personalities who enforced their interests in this way. Despite Strache’s boasting, he also gives away that these donors not only finance his party but “all of them”. He mentions the weapons producer Glock, the property speculator René Benko and the billionaire Heidi Horten, as well as the gambling group Novomatic.

Ibiza Affair video Image fair useThe secretly filmed 'Ibiza affair' video features two FPÖ politicians hinting that corporations purchased favourable legislation via donations / Image: fair use

Besides specific laws, these ladies and gentlemen also anticipate lower taxes for the rich. Furthermore, Strache raises the prospect of privatisation (of drinking water, for example), handing over part of the public news channel ORF to the Red Bull-billionaire Didi Mateschitz (who calls himself “Red Bull Boy”) and bribes for public infrastructure projects. He talks about buying media content and journalists and shows particular interest in controlling the biggest tabloid in Austria, Kronen Zeitung.

The two politicians, Strache and Gudenus, are visibly under the influence of drugs and negotiate with someone they believe to be a rich, Russian oligarch, allegedly looking for new possibilities in Austria. In fact, it is an actress, who for months played her part in this charade.

Liberalism and the EU vs. nationalism and populism

This video is now being publicly used to bring down Strache and to weaken the “populists” in Europe. Here, we see a conflict carried out within the ruling class, between the nationalist-demagogic capitalists on one side and the liberal-multilateral oriented capitalists on the other. The timing is obvious: this coming weekend, the EU elections will take place, where the functionality of the European Union, and with it the competitiveness of the European capital in the international trade war, are at stake. The capitalists want to prevent an electoral victory for Salvini, Le Pen, Strache etc. They want to guarantee that important political positions will be filled with persons they deem trustworthy. The capitalists in Europe want a functioning, strong EU, that can assert its interests within and outside the EU without making too much noise. Such as it was during the “Greek debt crisis”, when a country and its people were sacrificed for the stability of European banks. It’s no secret that this political status-quo is also being defended by manipulating the “public debate.” It has been openly declared by the EU-commission and the French president Macron (written in his open letter to the citizens of Europe).

While Strache now tries to one-sidedly present himself as a victim of a conspiracy, the liberal media styles the FPÖ as the sole traitors of the nation. Many international commentators (such as Angela Merkel) emphasise the danger of populism in general, and Russian lobbying in particular (such as the New York Times). The latter is a particularly flimsy argument since the only Russian aspect of the fateful night in Ibiza was the vodka. Both interpretations are one-sided and conceal more than they explain. But put together they paint a picture a little closer to the truth. Yes, the timely publication of the Ibiza-Tape serves political interests, and yes, they represent the general truth, which is that capitalists and their political staff engage in constant horse tradings amongst each other to serve their interests and manage their shared exploitation for the working class, which they all regard with contempt.

Fake oligarchs vs. regular “democratic” exercise of power

The Conservative Party (ÖVP) exceeded the legal election campaign spending by almost double (specifically, by 6 million Euros) in 2017, and their funds are not transparent. The political homepage of Blümel, an associate of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, owns a certain “Society for Supporting Bourgeois Policies” whose address is the same as the ÖVP-headquarters. For what might he use such complicated legal constructions? After all, Blümel is chairman of the ÖVP-Vienna, so why the need for an additional “Society” as a political platform?

Consider the “independent” Kronen Zeitung. Estate speculator René Benko now owns one-quarter of this media machine and is fighting in court for full control. Benko belongs to the circle of businessmen around ÖVP-chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who helped him personally in securing a highly lucrative estate-deal in an expensive shopping area in Vienna. Kurz called this “service-oriented administration”.

Sebastian Kurz 10 Image PoRInternational pressure played an important part in Kurz's decision to call for re-elections after the revelation of the Ibiza-Tape / Image: Image PoR

One more political event last week also reveals the bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy. The Department for Prosecution of Economy and Corruption indicted their own head, the highest justice official of the republic, Christian Pilnacek, who is general secretary in the ÖVP-led Ministry of Justice. Pilnacek is accused of impeding a long-lasting corruption investigation around an arms purchase that happened during the last ÖVP/Freedom Party government in 2002. Where is the liberal outcry against corruption in this case? Why is chancellor Kurz worried about the independence of the judiciary and the police in the case of the Ibiza-Tapes, but at the same time protects this high-ranking justice official who is close to the ÖVP?

The list of hypocrisy is endless and only leads to one conclusion: Kurz is just like Strache, but with real power in the state apparatus, real influence on the media and real support from the capitalists, as opposed to the wannabes from the Freedom Party. The Ibiza-Tape doesn’t show the power of the Freedom Party but their impotence in elite circles, and their incompetence. Their connection to the capitalists is weaker. The real politics, in the interest of stability and profits for the capitalist system, are being organised via the ÖVP.

Manoeuvres in the interest of the capitalist system

It’s unclear why liberal European strategists (whose main profiteer is Germany) chose Austria to make an example of. But objectively, Austria still has some room to improve the general situation of European capital.

For one, there is the Russia-affinity of Austria. Only this week, Austria’s “Green” president, Alexander Van der Bellen assured Russia’s president Putin of his continued partnership. To be more exact, president Van der Bellen spoke against the EU sanctions against Russia and in favour of the gas-pipeline-project Nord Stream 2. After all, Austria’s most important banking group, Raiffeisen bank, makes 40 percent of their profits in Russia and the export market to Russia is booming, despite the EU-sanctions. The Austrian oil and gas company OMV is financially invested in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But Germany is against this pipeline and is bothered by the Kurz-government‘s obstinacy in this matter. Also, Austria’s secret service has been cut off internationally from the West for a few months already, because it’s seen as an open door for Putin’s secret agencies.

Heinz Christian Strache Image Christian JanskyThere is much celebration over Strache's political demise, but it was not forced by the working class, and could turn into a Pyrrhic victory if the left doesn't go on the offensive / Image: Christian Jansky

Additionally, the ÖVP is still a stable bourgeois party that can be “improved” in the interests of European (German) capital without plunging Austria in a deep political crisis. At the same time, the Austrian Social Democracy is dutifully ready to solve any crisis in the name of “stability” and “reason”. In Italy, Hungary, Romania and Poland there is no such option for the capitalists – in all of these countries, capitalists have to govern with and through the so-called populists. Great Britain has already been lost. President of the EU-commission, Juncker, said it was one of his biggest mistakes not to have intervened in the Brexit-debacle more decisively. Apparently, the elite has learned from the British chaos and now acts more proactively.

Then there is the specific political culture in Austria that always oscillates between fantasies of grandeur and an inferiority complex particularly toward our German neighbours. Sebastian Kurz tried over the recent years to step on Angela Merkel's toes when speaking in talk shows or Bavarian conservative party meetings. The German government repeatedly let their irritations known and told him to stop these games. International pressure played an important part in Kurz‘s decision to call for re-elections after the revelation of the Ibiza-Tape.

Lastly, we shouldn’t forget about the role of the individual. One doesn’t have to be an expert to realise that Strache & Co are entirely open to the influence of money, power and seduction (the video shows Strache repeatedly commenting on the fake Russian oligarch: “Damn she’s hot.”) When Strache started to suspect a trap (because the toenails of the oligarch-actress weren’t manicured, befitting a rich lady), his polit-groupie Gudenus assured him: “This isn’t a trap.” Strache thus continued to spill stories – a perfect victim to the plot.

Kurz‘s strategy: flight forward

We are told that Kurz had a warning before everyone else found out about the video in the news. His first idea was to continue the coalition government, while changing some ministers. However, the Freedom Party refused to sacrifice their theoretical head and Minister of the Interior, Herbert Kickl. Him leaving would likely have split the party, although it would have been the preferred solution for the bourgeoisie. The Federation of Austrian Industries had already publicly approved this procedure. It would have been an easy game for Kurz, who could’ve basically governed as a single-party administration.

But as this coup was denied by the FPÖ, Kurz started to work on his re-election speech. He presented himself as a long-suffering victim of the countless “isolated cases” of racist and fascist clangers by the FPÖ. But to continue the amazing success story of his political line (i.e. attacks on the workers), he said he would now choose the path of re-elections. In the same speech, he appealed to the voters to increase their support for him. He said he couldn’t govern with “today’s” Freedom Party, not with the Social Democracy with their “different political approach” and not with other parties (such as the neoliberal NEOS), because they are too small. At the same time, he talked about protection from migration, upcoming tax decreases and used coded anti-semitic language while attacking the Social Democrats.

Kurz is in the course of re-organising the bourgeois block. His plan is to increase his votes and arrange for some majority provider such as the neoliberal outfit NEOS and to continue his onslaught against workers’ rights and the welfare state.

Social Democrats could sink Kurz

A serious opposition could now expose all the manifest contradictions within the government and the state apparatus and massively weaken both major bourgeois parties – the FPÖ as well as the ÖVP. For this, they should direct the public debate towards the obvious hypocrisy of both.

But even this purely democratic question is too much for the SPÖ-leadership. They didn’t demand re-elections but waited for hours and hours until Kurz did it himself first. Their accusations were purely directed towards the FPÖ and even then, they didn’t attack them with political arguments but by simply reporting them to the Department for Prosecution of Economy and Corruption – the very same department that indicted its own head to for corruption in the interest of the conservative party only this week!

Pamela Rendi Wagner Image SPÖ Presse und KommunikationSP party chairwoman, Pamela Rendi Wagner, stubbornly stuck to the idea of being incorporated into a future government come the next elections / Image: SPÖ Presse und Kommunikation

While tens of thousands of people celebrated and demonstrated on the streets after the demise of Strache, the SPÖ leadership didn’t manage to connect to this mood to finish off this anti-working-class government. They only hope is to be incorporated into a future government come the next elections. This is in line with their general orientation towards “social partnership” and the state apparatus. Even after Kurz declined any cooperation with the SP in his re-election speech, the SP party chairwoman Pamela Rendi-Wagner stubbornly stuck to this idea.

If this continues, Strache’s fall will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. It will result only in strengthening Kurz and the neoliberal NEOS party and also the stabilisation of the Freedom Party. The orientation of the SP-leadership directly prepares for a second Kurz government, and as such, a government of cuts and of slashing social and democratic rights. The liberal indignation will die away and the working class will be defenceless in the face of the reorganised bourgeois bloc.

But this is not inevitable. The ongoing political conflict is a struggle between bourgeois factions, re-organising their power amongst themselves. What we need is an offensive of the working class on the basis of social issues and class struggle, instead of participating in the corrupt capitalist state apparatus. The re-elections will only change the status quo if a new programme can be pushed through within the workers’ movement. This is only possible by openly opposing the SP-leadership.

Democratic control and expropriation are in order!

It is thus the task of the Left to use this crisis of the bourgeois to launch an offensive struggle with the correct orientation. This way, we can weaken capitalism and its exercise of power via the state. Within the first few hours of the government’s crisis, we saw that the Socialist Youth (SJ) would be in a position to do just that. The SJ, together with other SP-youth organisations, called for a demonstration in front of the Chancellor’s Office and 10,000 people followed this spontaneous call. The SJ leader, Julia Herr, received rapturous applause. Her speech made the following points:

“No to a government that can be bought! No to both ÖVP and FPÖ! The rich give you money and you deliver. Your donors wanted the 12-hour working day, you are implementing it! Your donors wanted to smash the health insurance so that private insurance companies can make profits. You delivered. Your donors wanted low taxes on profits, you deliver and want to lower the tax!”

This is, in the abstract, a correct position. But what does it mean, concretely, to fight against a government that can be bought? It is not enough to say the right things, now is the time to start as big a campaign as possible to fight against the status quo.

The first task is to openly argue for the overthrow of the government. In the current situation, this can even be done via the parliament. The Freedom Party hinted that they might support a vote of no confidence against Kurz, because all of their ministers were forced to resign. Such a vote of no confidence was announced – not by the SP but by a Green-Party split called “Jetzt!” (Now!). Will the SP support this vote? Only if they are forced to by events. The SJ head, Herr, has a responsibility to take concrete steps in the struggle against the ÖVP/FPÖ-government, for which she and the SJ stand. She should demand the following: overthrow Kurz by supporting the vote of no confidence.

Julia Herr Image SPÖ Presse und KommunikationSJ leader, Julia Herr, was rapturously received at a spontaneously called assembly of 10,000 people within hours of the government's crisis breaking out. She must translate words into action / Image: SPÖ Presse und Kommunikation

With this, Kurz would be the shortest-serving Chancellor in the history of Austria, and this is exactly what we want.

This could serve as a 180° turn on social and environmental issues, and could overcome the divisive ideology of racism. Take back all the counter-reforms!

  • Get rid of the 12-hour-working-day.
  • Full control of social and health insurance by the insured instead of representatives of the capitalists.
  • Take back the cuts in the basic income for the poor and ill.
  • Against racist division of the working class and against the strengthening of repression: take back the headscarf ban in kindergartens, the mounted police unit and the use of hollow-point bullets.

It is now necessary to concretely test the opposition parties, including the SP, in their reaction to these demands. The trade union leaders have now a historic chance to make good on their promise of last year by starting a massive campaign to reintroduce the 8-hour-working-day. The fact that the metal industry boss Collini already announced that he wanted to cancel the collective bargaining round this autumn is enough reason to go into a strong offensive. This can and should be demanded by trade union members, shop stewards and trade union officials.

For a socialist programme!

How can we ensure that a future left government will not be bought by the capitalists? After all, laws for party finance transparency and anti-corruption laws obviously don’t work.

Democratic control is only possible if the financial practices of the capitalists are mercilessly opened up to the public. Open the books! The capitalists called out in the Ibiza-Tape are only the tip of the iceberg. We know how big capital, such as the Raiffeisen bank & Co., have the politicians in their pockets. We don’t trust the “judiciary”, who cover the powerful and only go after the corrupt, drunken smallfry. We want shop stewards, trade unions and activists not only to get access to the books and insight into the capitalists’ power plays, we also want to report this to the public. We want to know for sure who the buyers of political power and policies are – and we argue for their full expropriation without compensation under workers’ control and the public.

  • Down with the bourgeois block!
  • For a mass campaign to take back all the cuts!
  • Open the capitalists’ books!
  • For expropriation without compensation of all corporations and capitalists that bought policies!
  • No waiting for an election – fight now!