Austrian after the elections: Social Democracy in crisis

On October 3rd Austria was shaken by a political earthquake. After decades of "social partnership", after 13 years of a 'Grand Coalition' between the Social Democrat Party (SP) and the conservative Peoples Party (VP) characterised by enormous stability these parliamentary elections mark a turning point in Austria's post-war history. Especially the big success of the extreme right-wing party of Jörg Haider, the FP÷, was not only a shock to a lot of people in Austria, but also internationally.

On October 3rd Austria was shaken by a political earthquake. After decades of "social partnership", after 13 years of a 'Grand Coalition' between the Social Democrat Party (SP) and the conservative Peoples Party (VP) characterised by enormous stability these parliamentary elections mark a turning point in Austria's post-war history. "Not one stone remained upon another". That's how the journalists tried to describe these elections. Especially the big success of the extreme right-wing party of Jörg Haider, the FPÖ, was not only a shock to a lot of people in Austria, but also internationally.

Here are the results:

  • SP 33,15% (1.532.448 votes) -311.000 votes (-4,91%)
  • FP 26,91% (1.244.087) +183.710 votes (+5,02%)
  • VP 26,91% (1.243.642) -66.371 votes (-1,38%)
  • Greens 7,40% (342.260) +108.952 votes (+2,59%)
  • Liberals 3,15% (168.612) -99.314 votes (-2,36%)

What do these results mean? The Socialdemocracy has reached an historically low point. Since 1970 the SP had been the main party in the Austrian government. It has always been the main force of "modernisation" of Austrian capitalism. In the beginning this was combined with a vast programme of social and democratic reform. In the last few years its orientation had changed to one of reducing the role of the state and laying the basis for a competitive development of the Austrian economy. This was based on a policy of privatisations, cuts in public spending to reduce the national debt to qualify for European Monetary Union, flexibility of the labour market and the beginnings of a reform of the pensions system.

In the election campaign the "spin doctors" in the SP headquarters gave the party the image of being the only political force capable of guaranteeing stability and the continuation of the "Austrian way". "Responsibility for Austria" was the only promise the SP gave to the electorate. What a difference to the last elections when the trade unions played a significant role in the election campaign putting forward a clear programme in defence of the welfare state against the bourgeois attacks!

The problem is that the people, especially the working-class, are fed up with this policy of the SP. Every day they see how life gets harder for them. Unemployment is rising, the fear of losing one's job is spreading, the capitalists are on the offensive and are demanding longer hours, less pay and more "flexibility". The welfare state and the education system is under attack. This is the reality facing the Austrian working-class.

SP Blairite leadership

On the other hand they see their traditional leaders at the top of the SP and the trade unions remaining silent or even playing the game of big business. The SP leadership has obviously been influenced by the ideas of Tony Blair's "New Labour", and of Gerhard Schröder. Klima, chancellor, and chairman of the party, and his party secretary Rudas are clearly following in the footsteps of Blair and Schröder, although they would not admit it in public. Especially after the series of defeats of the German SPD they were anxious not to have Klima linked too closely with his friends from Britain and Germany.

Nevertheless, Austrian workers saw the need to give their party a lesson, a slap in the face. In "Red Vienna", as well as in all the industrial regions, the SP lost dramatically. The FP won 169.000 votes from the SP. Among blue-collar workers the FP is now the first party. Especially young workers gave their vote to the party of Jörg Haider.

The FP had a double strategy. On the one hand it had a well known businessman at the top of its list to gain votes from the conservatives, and on the other hand it organised an election campaign full of social demagogy promising more money for the families, lower rents, lower electricity prices for private households and small enterprises, not only for big business. In Vienna they played again the racist card arguing against immigrants and asylum seekers. However, the serious bourgeois paper "Presse" even talked of an election campaign with elements of a "left wing" programme, being the only party to promise social reforms.

The only answer of the SP was that these demands cannot be financed because of the need to adapt the budget to the criteria of the European stability pact. On the other hand the SP has also lost a lot of votes to the Greens (69.000). They lost the support especially of left-wing Socialdemocrats who are fed up with the racist policies of the Socialdemocratic minister of the interior who is carrying out precisely the policies Haider is demanding against asylum seekers and against new immigration. It is also worth noting that these elections saw the lowest turn out (less than 80%) of the post-war period. Especially in working class areas people see no reason in going to vote. This is mainly a problem that affects the Socialdemocracy. It has no idea how to mobilise important layers of its traditional sympathisers.

What government?

Now the question of a new government is on the agenda. Leading representatives of big business declared that they would favour a coalition between the conservatives and the FP of Jörg Haider whose real programme is one of enormous social attacks, weakening the trade unions and the shop stewards and the system of social security, further privatisations and a reform of the tax system in favour of the rich (flat tax) and abolishing important rights of workers and apprentices.

The only problem is that during the election campaign the conservatives promised to leave the government if they finished in third place. This was their only way of mobilising their sympathisers. In the end they came third by just 415 votes. It seems that they want to blackmail the Socialdemocrats into accepting all the demands of the bourgeois. Either that or there won't be a government.

This process of establishing a new government will be very difficult. It cannot be excluded that sooner or later there will have to be new elections. For the first time in the history of the Second Republic the president is playing a key role in the whole process. President Klestil even worked out a sort of programme the next government will have to fulfil, obviously following the interests of the bourgeois. What we could see is probably the end of the 30 years of Socialdemocratic rule.

The bourgeois realise that they do not need the SP anymore. A leading figure of big business said that this election result is not only a defeat for the Grand Coalition but also for the social partnership. In other words, the capitalists feel themselves strong enough to challenge the SP-led trade unions.

Pressure from below

On the other hand the unions put a lot of pressure on the leaders of the SP to move to the left. This week's trade union congress in Vienna saw a clear change in the mood of most of the delegates and shop stewards who are nearly all members of the SP. In a meeting with Klima all the criticism against the right wing orientation of the party leadership erupted. Everybody declared that the Blair-Schröder way cannot be the way of the Austrian Socialdemocracy.

The demand of the Austrian Marxists to discuss the future of the SP in a special party congress found a big echo among the Socialdemocratic trade union activists. Nearly everybody was against a coalition with the conservatives and rejected the demands of the bourgeoisie. Within the party we can already see the beginnings of a polarisation between the right wing and those who want to see the SP move to the left. The "spin doctors" are in big difficulties now. If the two bourgeois parties manage to form a government this means the end of social partnership as we know it. This would be the start of a more open class struggle as the unions would have to defend their position. Already now we can see how the capitalists have gone onto the offensive. Stormy events will be on the agenda very soon. It is the task of the Austrian Marxists to conquer a strong position from where it will be possible to influence this process and to rearm the Austrian labour movement with a clear socialist perspective.