Communists secure major victory in Austrian municipal election

The municipal elections in Austria’s second-biggest city, Graz, were a political earthquake. The victory of the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) shows a categorical rejection of the hated bourgeois establishment that has managed the city for years, and opens up a perspective of a broad offense against social welfare cuts and an end to Graz’s tenure as a private investors’ paradise.

Not a stone was left standing of the previous administration after the municipal elections in the capital city of the Styria-province on 26 September. The conservative party (ÖVP) faced a bruising defeat, with only 25.91 percent of votes (down 11.88 percent compared to 2017). Long-time mayor Siegfried Nagl announced his resignation on election night and handed his office over to his vice-chairman Kurt Hohensinner.

The coalition’s junior partner, the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), also lost a significant amount of ground, with 10.61 percent of the votes (down 5.25 percent). The citizens of Graz dealt the bourgeois city government a well-deserved bloody nose for its policies in favour of the banks and big business.

With increasing desperation, the former mayor Nagl tried to prevent his electoral defeat in the last stages of his campaign with crude anti-communist propaganda. He warned of “state bankruptcy, mass unemployment and a people fobbed off with alms and no perspective” in case of a KPÖ-led city government. This is a continuation of a year-long struggle to sabotage the growing influence and support for the KPÖ in Graz.

But in fact, this result was already achieved by 18 years of his own government. Public debts have exploded to €1.26bn, thousands of Grazians are without jobs, and those depending on social-card services were faced with cuts to energy subsidies and Christmas bonuses.

The FPÖ-coalition partner in the meantime gambled on racist diversionary tactics. The party issued campaign posters carrying the slogan: “Guaranteed: Graz is not your home!”, featuring a photograph of refugees. But the working class of Graz did not fall for this disgusting ruse.

Communist victory

The clear electoral winner in these elections was the KPÖ. The party came in first with 28.84 percent of the votes (an increase of 8.5 percent compared to 2017) – its best-ever result. The party has gained ground in the last period by consistently opposing social cuts in parliament and provisional government, in addition to providing direct support to the workers and poor at a local level.

The KPÖ won 3,000 votes respectively from the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Greens; and 2,000 votes each from the conservative ÖVP and the right-wing FPÖ, as well as winning 4,000 from previous abstainers. This goes to show that a wide swathe of the population are fed up with all the parties of the status quo, and are looking for an alternative.

The results for the SPÖ Graz and the regional elections in Upper Austria, which were held on the same day, clearly show what happens when the working class and youth aren’t offered such a political alternative.

The vote share for SPÖ Graz is stagnating around its historical lowest point: 9.53 percent, down 0.52 percent compared to 2017. In Upper Austria, meanwhile, the SPÖ is also stagnating, while a new party of reactionary vaccination-sceptics has entered the provincial parliament, with 6.3 percent. The SPÖ lacks credibility, its electoral base in the working class is dwindling and it even has trouble mobilising support among large industrial workplaces.

How did we get here?

From the beginning, the workers’ movement in Austria has been dominated by the Social Democracy. Unlike in other countries, the Communist Party didn’t develop significantly, with exception of a short intermezzo when they led the resistance during the fascist period, and the decade after.

In the past, the Social Democracy always understood the need to incorporate strong left-wing tendencies within the party, in order to prevent the rise of any forces to their left, and maintain the class struggle within relatively safe channels.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the crisis of Stalinism was reflected in the KPÖ. The KP faction in the province of Styria essentially adopted a left-reformist approach, focusing on social policies at a local and even individual level. However, unlike the party in the rest of Austria, the faction did not focus all its energies on left electoral alliances but kept its identity as an independent party. It defended the word “communism” in the party name, and its leading representatives still identify as Marxists (despite stressing that they want to interpret this “un-ideologically”).

In the 1990s, community politics with an emphasis on housing finally brought electoral success to the KPÖ in Graz. This was assisted by the increasingly right-wing policy of the SPÖ, which had also held the office of mayor in Graz since the mid-1980s. The Communist Party installed a hotline to assist tenants, and consistently voted against social cuts. Additionally, officials of the KPÖ Styria don’t take more than a worker’s wage, donating everything above €2,000 to social projects for citizens. All of this has won the party credibility with the masses of Graz.

However, the KPÖ is not without its limitations. Its focus on community politics and its parliamentary outlook, lacking a perspective of united class struggle, have always been its Achilles’ heel. For example, the communist trade union faction did not put forward any plan of action when the biggest car factory in Graz, Magna, announced mass sackings in 2019. Instead, their demand was to work out an alternative to the dependency on the crisis-ridden car industry together with the management. This, despite the fact that they earned 18.5 percent of the votes and five mandates in said factory’s shop steward elections.

In its approach towards migration, the party also leaves a lot to be desired. Officially, it promotes a Stalinist “social-patriot” orientation, which defends a “progressive Austrian nation”. Despite the scandalously racist policy of the Austrian national government towards migrants fleeing the recent take-over of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the KPÖ remained silent in midst of its electoral campaign.

In the past, the KPÖ has been notably absent on questions concerning the constant campaign of racism conducted by the ruling conservative party. In 2015, when there was a huge pro-refugee movement in Austria, a leading comrade of the Styrian Party, Werner Murgg, called nation states without strict border regimes “eunuch states”.

Despite all these limitations, the decline of the Social Democracy and its complete lack of credibility have laid the basis for the rise of the KPÖ. In fact, this process started back in the 1980s, during the steel crisis, when some militant shop stewards in the steelworks went from the socialists (whose leaders defended a class-collaborationist line) over to the KP-union faction.

Since 2011, the SPÖ formed a so-called “reform partnership” with the conservative ÖVP in the region of Styria and actively carried out the destruction of rural infrastructure, closure of hospitals and targeted cuts to the most vulnerable layers of society etc. Not to mention the federal party, which has not once consistently defended a working-class standpoint in any conflict or dispute.

The KPÖ has thus become a visible and viable alternative to the SP in Graz and the region. Since 2003, the KPÖ has come second or third place in municipal elections, while the SP has continuously lost votes since 1988 (when it still had a vote-share of 42.5 percent). The Marxists of Der Funke openly called a KPÖ vote in Graz, and in provincial elections, since 2015. Our article just before this election bore the headline: “Graz 2021: Black-blue out; Red-Red in!” (Black-blue referring to ÖVP-FPÖ).

Underlying processes

This electoral result cannot be solely explained from the point of view of specific regional developments. The victory of the KPÖ resonated beyond the traditional left, and even garnered attention internationally. Even people who never thought of having anything to do with communism in their lives find this political sea change interesting and timely; most workers and youth view it positively.

Graz result Image fair useThe victory of the KPÖ resonated beyond the traditional left, and even garnered attention internationally / Image: fair use

This is unmistakable evidence of the fact that what is happening in Graz is part of a larger tidal shift in society. The crisis and resulting insecurity of capitalism is leading many to question the well-known truths of the past, and making them increasingly open to new ideas and alternatives.

Our political enemies view this election with horror. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, only a few days after saying he “felt the gratitude of the masses to the conservatives” (!), finds the communist victory “alarming.” Political commentators such as the public broadcasting station’s senior editor Hans Bürger sees it as a “fertile ground for left-wing protest movements.”

Now, rumours have emerged that the federal government is putting pressure on the Greens to prevent KP-leader Elke Kahr from taking office as mayor. This pressure shows how afraid the bourgeoisie are of the emergence of an alternative to their established rule.

Even if they fail to prevent a communist-led city government, the hostile approach of the bourgeois establishment will shape the coming political struggle between a KP-led administration. The federal and regional governments fund the municipalities, and might use their control of the purse strings to pressure the KPÖ.

Community and communism

In their first statements after the elections, the KP-leadership and its main candidate Elke Kahr stress that they want to continue to be “useful”, “to be there for everyone” and “to work together with all parties”, in short: a continuation of their community-oriented approach. This is, for now, a very popular stance. As yet, they have made no statements as to which reforms they will take up.

Housing is still the main social issue in Graz. The costs of rent are exploding, with an increase of 20 percent in the last year alone (the price now stands at 9.59€/m²). At the same time, the number of vacant “investment property” apartments has increased, because real estate speculators have had free reign to buy up living space, aided and encouraged by the black-blue government. Additionally, usage of public spaces, public transport (which is extremely expensive and inefficient in Graz), air pollution and cuts to public services are all major issues in the city.

A KP-led government must ensure that class-based demands for a decent existence and workplace conditions have a prominent point of support in the city hall. Also, the above-mentioned car factory Magna, which currently employs 13,000 workers, is constantly under pressure from the capitalist world market, and exploits its workers mercilessly. The communist trade union faction, together with a communist-led city hall, have a major opportunity to advance the cause of the working class in upcoming social conflicts.

However, confronted with questions about the KPÖ’s party programme, which includes the expropriation of big business and industry, the leadership of the Graz party has offered ‘reassurances’ to the establishment that this will not be a feature of their policy, and that these parts of their programme are not a “monstrance that we flaunt.”

In the context of growing social and political polarisation, a mechanical division between the ‘long-term’ goal of a socialist programme and the concrete task of improving the living standards of the masses could weaken a communist-led administration.

There is also certain flippancy evident in the attitude of party leaders towards revolutionary politics. For instance, what does leading candidate, Elke Kahr, have to say about Lenin? According to her, Lenin is the “name of our cat in our party’s office. I like him.” And rather than replying robustly to the anti-communist propaganda that communism has brought “millions of deaths”, Elke Kahr simply replied that “this is not a topic that interests normal people.”

This is the first time in living memory that communism has featured so prominently in public debate. It would have been much more impactful, and bolstered activists and supporters far more, had Kahr said something along the lines of: “yes, the Communist Party does indeed stand for the expropriation of big capital and wants to win a majority in society to carry out this demand for the benefit of the workers and their families as well as nature.’

Such an approach would electrify the political situation in Austria. The political vacuum left by the Social Democracy is growing and demands to be filled. The Styrian KPÖ has won political attention and now has the authority to put together a nationwide communist candidacy.

Without anticipating any developments, we can say that with the current situation in the Social Democracy, and especially the continuous surrender and errors of its left, have created space for a serious, national, working-class candidate to the party’s left. This would awaken the working-class movement by openly challenging the dominance of the right-wing and bourgeois leaders of the big workers’ organisations.

The growing unrest and anger in society will find further expression. Events, events and furthermore events will shape and reshape the consciousness of the masses, test ideas and leaders; and create and destroy organisations. In this process, the working class will develop a leadership that is willing and capable to finish the job. For sure, the victory of the KP in Graz is one such element in this process.

May the bourgeois tremble, the period of calm and social peace is coming to an end.

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