The first round of elections for President of the Republic shocked both the political caste and larger layers of society. The two candidates for parties of the current government (a social democrat-conservative “grand” coalition) together won just 23%, a huge fall when we consider that previously the combined vote for these parties had always been 80-90%. Politics in Austria is now entering a critical stage.
Only candidates that stood against the establishment stood a chance in these elections. The winner was the far-right Norber Hofer, polling 35.1 %. The green-supported Van der Bellen came second with 21.3% of the vote. Irmgard Griss the ex-head of Higher Administrative Court, representing a liberal-catholic trend, took third place with 18.9%. Fourth was Rudolf Hundstorfer, ex-TUC President and standing minister of social affairs, polling 11.3 %; and in fifth we have Andreas Khol, an arch-conservative prominent figure of the Conservative party who won 11.1% of the vote. The last place went to a half senile building-tycoon and high-society figure, polling 2.4 %. 31.5 % of voters abstained, which is a historically high figure.
Norbert Hofer is a leading figure of the far-right wing FPÖ and has won his party’s highest ever percentage of the vote. Not only this, the FPÖ candidate has won more than 80% of the constituencies. The rest went to the Green candidate, some to Griss and only a handful to the SPÖ or ÖVP candidate. Out of 1474 polling stations in Vienna only three had a social democratic majority, all three in better off senior residences .
The reasons for this collapse in voter support are to be found in the fear of marginalisation and boiling anger against the existing conditions and its representatives. Unemployment is standing at a record high of 10 % and is further increasing. Real wages have been stagnant for two decades now, and for some layers have been falling. Working contracts issued since the crisis of 2008/2009 offer 30 % wage cuts and worse conditions, especially on working hours. There have been no major direct attacks on the social systems, because of the fear of unrest. But ever since the crisis there is a permanent austerity regime, referred to as an “efficiency-drive”, and lower expenditure budgets. The effects of this policy are clearly visible in the conditions in hospitals, schools and services in general. Lack of housing, driven by the ending of public housing building in cities like Vienna is accompanied by an immobiliary speculation boom as rents annually increase by 10% or more.
The uneasiness is not limited to the working class families alone. Farmers are suffering from falling prices of their products as a result of the capitalist crisis of over-production, but also because of the loss of the Russian export market due to the EU-embargo. Whilst anti-tax-evasion measures against small shop owners and bars infuriate the petit bourgeois.
Added to all this the newspapers are full (or rather were full before the refugee “crisis”) of reports on corruption, tax evasion, bribery and banker bailouts which amounts now to 12 billion paid to the banksters, and we are not at the end yet. Needless to say that no prominent figure involved in this slashing of public money went behind bars.
Everyone can understand that such a situation cannot last forever without expressions of discontent. The results of opinion polls, limited in itself, nevertheless give a clear indication of how people in the country feel about their conditions: 52 % of Austrians feel that the overall situation is getting worse, 68% say that are dissatisfied with government, and 75 % say they don’t trust any political party.
So the abysmal failure of the government candidates is not linked to their personal standing at all, this was a show of mistrust in the government. Out of 21 elections held since 2008, in all but two the ruling parties have lost voter support. The outcome of the latest is astonishing only by the margins. For 2 years already all the polls show that right-wing FPÖ has a clear lead, now standing at 10 percentage points higher than the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie and the working class.
Class collaboration leads to the right-drift
This is the result of the politics of the grand-coalition. It was supposed to be a broad alliance to deal with big reforms. But in the eyes of the bourgeoisie reforms now means nothing short of severe cuts. The involvement of the TUC in government puts a break to big counter-reforms, but it acts as a dispenser of the attacks. However, the trickle down of ever worsening conditions does not satisfy any class. The bourgeoisie wants hard attacks, especially on sanitation and pensions as it feels it is losing in all international economic rankings. Obviously the smashing of labour conditions in Southern Europe now is turning against the Austrian bourgeoisie who demanded it in first place. So their response is clear: the same that has been done in Greece, Spain and Italy needs to be done in Austria too. Only this way they can prop up their profitability.
At the same time the sticking of the labour bureaucracy to the state is necessary as it neither desires nor is capable of standing up to the pressure of the employers in the factories. Their plan was to use their government involvement to give something to the working class without taking it from the employers. But this severely backfired. It led to several employers revolts against government-initiatives, destabilising it further.
The party bureaucracy have no standing in society and no political ideas that are not derived directly from the bourgeoise. They even have a theory to this: it is impossible to rule against the financial markets, it is only possible to be independent of financial markets through self imposed austerity. Obviously this does not apply when the bankers are in need. In fact this coalition was the first in Europe to give it´s bank a full bail-out guarantee. And yes, we are paying to them. One Bank alone, the “Hypo Alpen Adria” takes an average yearly net income equal to that of the wage of every worker in the country.
By trying to solve the crisis for the bankers, the social democratic mass organisations made the capitalist crisis their own crisis.
All this year the FPÖ in the eyes of the masses stood as the most visible opposition to the system. Now their fruits are ripening.
The refugees coming to Austria polarised society in two camps. One is basing itself on human feelings of solidarity, the other one expresses frustrations of now even more limited resources for themselves. As Marxists we explained all these months that the pro-refugees activists need to adopt an anti-capitalist stance, linking the demands for the newly arrived poor to the living conditions of the people already living here. On the other side we explained, if you fall into the trap of racist demagogy, then you can be sure that your own living conditions will be attacked, as the working-class is unable to fight back if it is split along this line.
In the first months the camp of solidarity prevailed. Tens of thousands joined in the movement to help refugees and also organised two huge demonstrations. But after the Paris attack and the sexual assaults in Köln at new year, the camp of sceptic people fell into the racist demagogy systematically being put forward by corporate media, right wing formations and even the government itself.
Next stop: 22nd of May
To become president the candidate needs an absolute majority. There are two candidates left to choose: the reactionary Norbert Hofer and the liberal Alexander Van der Bellen. The outcome is very unclear at the moment.
Some words to the candidates: the front-runner, Norbert Hofer, is a reactionary individual, member of a so called “Burschenschaft”, which are student organisations dating back to the German unification movement of the early 19th century. Today these associations in Austria are an elite network of reactionary academics, some of those with a fascist ideology, but all of them reactionary to their very core. It is worth noting that in the first round Hofer did nothing to distance himself from this tradition. He did not even give a straight answer as to whether May 8th (Surrender day of Hitler army) is a day of joy or grief.
Alexander Van der Bellen is a neoliberal Professor and ex-leader of the greens. He is in favour of austerity, banking bail-outs and European Union and has said that in politics lying is sometimes necessary to protect the interests of the ruling class. During the first round he found out that he is against TTIP. But he is also appealing to a more inclusive definition of homeland, including all the persons living here.
Both stand clearly for one of the trends in bourgeoisie: the one who sees its interests best served in holding up capitalist integration, and the other one that is more inclined to nationalist manoeuvres to protect narrower capital interests. In the first joint debate after the first round both candidates fought a “cotton bud”-fight, as a journalist put it. Both were appealing to each other, and even jointly expressing that the rift in society should not be further enhanced. This is clearly not only an election strategy only, but an expression of the concern of the political and economic establishment on the political stability of the country.
A victory for Hofer would signify the breakthrough of new reactionary movements, and Van der Bellen’s victory would mean continuing the conditions that breed the new reactionary movements. It is clear that Marxists cannot support either of these candidates.
But it is not so simple in the eyes of the masses, as a vote for Van der Bellen is seen as a possibility to fight back or at least to stall the looming reactionary backlash until the next general election, scheduled for 2018. So Marxists have to patiently explain why a vote for Van der Bellen does not signify any solution to the real driving forces of the political and social crisis we are experiencing.
Concretely we are involved in a left-wing coalition (Offensive gegen Rechts) to organise a rally against Hofer in the week before the election. This initiative is heavily criticised by the liberal-green establishment, including Van der Bellen himself. The green leadership, echoed by many honest people being dragged into politics by the polarisation, argue that further polarisation helps Hofer, who has a more clear anti-political-system connotation that Van der Bellen.
But vacillation does not solve any problem. What is needed is a fighting alternative, not only against the most reactionary representatives of the system, but against the government also. We are convinced tjat tens of thousands of people are prepared to join a serious fight against reaction, the worsening conditions and the rigged system for the rich.
Crisis of the political system
But the coming election-contest in itself is not the to the only evidence of instability in the system. The traditional parties SPÖ and ÖVP are hanging on the ropes.
For the bourgeois camp there has been instability for ten years now. Splits off of the conservative ÖVP and nationalist FPÖ are a frequent feature now. The lifespan of these formations has been short-lived up till now, even if they got parliament representation for a short period What is worrying now for the bourgeoisie is that the nationalist FPÖ is clearly leading the show now. Their social demagogy and their anti-EU rhetoric does not go down too well with the industrialists and bankers. Even if on the social policies they are a clear “cut-them!”-party. But in comparison with the conservatives they are not so familiar with the state institutions and the leading banks. All together the bourgeoisie wants them as the battering ram against the working class, not the leader of the orchestra. The second thing worrisome to the bourgeoisie is the fact that the conservative lacks a hard handed leader that holds together the conflicting entities of the party and gives them a clear lead. They have used up four party leaders in the last eight years, including their standing party head.
But even worse is the situation of the social democratic organisations. The polarisation in society goes through the core of the party. This makes the leadership unable to go in any direction. Party functionaries are in open stress now. One side asks representatives of the other side to step down.
All are united in the appraisal that the party leader is finished now, but as they cannot decide on another one, there is an unstable stand-still for the moment. Many party institutions are asking for a clear position on the refugees’ issue, but they are not saying what they are in favour of. The reason for this is easy: it is the political split in the party on one hand, but on the other hand they are waiting for the results of the May 22nd election. The social democracy, including the trade union leaders, are so involved in the state apparatus that they need to orientate towards the new political situation established on May 22nd.
Last resort: racism and rule of emergency
This is the reason why party leader and SPÖ-frontman Werner Faymann has announced a “New Start” for the government at the end of the coming month. Meanwhile both consisting parts of the government act as if nothing had happened. In an overnight act they broth a new “asylum and border security” law into the parliament. This law de facto stops the possibility to seek asylum in Austria and has a “state emergency”-clausula that allows the government to abolish the rule of law in the question of security matters concerning foreigners. This law infuriates the SPÖ-left. It is against EU-rules, against democracy, anti-humanitarian and has a severe historical implication: the rule of emergency, which led to the institutional takeover of fascism in Austria in 1933 is re-established as a political feature. FPÖ Hofer stands against this law as he demagogically wants to protect the rule of parliament.
Furthermore, 2 billion euros ,on top of the regular budget-plan, are to be given to the police and the military in order to increase the capacity for repression by the state. At the same time th 550 million euros are missing from the schools budget.
This new law and order policy was established overnight in January. The government agreed not to take any more than 35,750 refugees this year. As the number is now approaching 20,000. The government is planning to close down borders, probably in the summer. They have been busy building fences, camps and control infrastructure at all the borders in the east and south of the country. Military recruits are being educated in push-back actions, impeding people crossing the borders. This is not only a question of abandoning humanity and democratic rights, but also so a problem for the free flows of goods and as such against basic laws of the EU. But in the panic of losing any ground in society this is of less concern to the provincial figures of politics in Austria: racism is the last resort these puppets of capital feel they can lean on in order to have a foothold in society.
Four SPÖ-MPs voted against this law. This is of minor concern for the party leaders, but the most right wing exponents of the SPÖ are boiling over. They want “these utopians” to shut up and a clear positioning of the SPÖ in “the middle of society”, by which they mean a nationalist-protectionist stance and also a lowering of social benefits, as they feel the income difference between a wage-earner and social-benefit-receiver is too low. Obviously these policies include a future government of FPÖ and SPÖ, as is already established in one region. Top party insiders report that they feel the conflicts are so deep that they cannot be bridged.
All in all it is very unclear if there will be any new-start for the government. At the top the standstill agreement amongst the coalition partners is holding, every minister praises the renewed joint effort to make the country work. Also in public the TUC and regional party leaders are agreeing to freeze the situation for the moment. But reality is going much faster than these empty slogans. Anything is possible: new splits, new leaders, new elections and new coalitions. A bourgeois commentator has described the situation as “the beginning of an interregnum of instability”.
The working class for the moment is only a spectator in this situation. The majority of the class is voting for the FPÖ, even amongst the trade union members. Many have felt forced by the regime of austerity, low wages and lack of resistance to the bosses’ attacks from their leaders. Voting for the FPÖ in these layers of society is based on an anti-establishment attitude without any affection to the party. Many of the young workers spreading FPÖ propaganda these days were the most radical and willing to fight the bosses on the wage front. But even the metal workers have gave in to pressure of the bosses last Autumn after a year long conflict.
The polarisation in society is not class against class. This is unfortunate, but understandable taking into account the permanent betrayal of the leaders of the working class and their involvement in state affairs over many years. The Marxists understand that the crumbling of the old institutions, parties and social systems is a necessary part of the crisis of capitalism which is global, and will not end any time soon.
Just as unexpected as this crisis erupted in this seemingly” stable northern European country will the working class one day step onto the scene of struggle along with its slogans and methods. The Marxists in Austria are keeping their banners clean and are ready to decisively intervene in these coming events