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Putting Green Paint on the Austrian Right

Austria’s general election brought welcome setbacks for the far-right Freedom Party. But the surging Green Party looks ready to betray its founding mission and form a government with establishment conservatives.

Werner Kogler of the Austrian Greens party participates a television interview following elections to the National Council on September 29, 2019 in Vienna, Austria. Michael Gruber / Getty

Austria’s parliamentary election on September 29 was widely hailed as a defeat for “populists,” as Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) swept to victory amidst the collapse of its former coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). The election had been prompted by a government scandal in May, centered on the FPÖ’s deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache. He was forced to resign when footage emerged of him and FPÖ parliamentary leader Johann Gudenus promising state contracts in exchange for party donations, in the so-called “Ibiza Affair.”

The FPÖ had made its first advance beginning in the 1980s, and over subsequent years built its rise on racist incitement as well as agitation against the grand coalition formed by the ÖVP and the social-democratic SPÖ. Through this the far-right party consolidated its electoral base, entering the national government for the first time in 2000. When it again joined a coalition administration with the ÖVP in 2017, the FPÖ looked intent on staying in high office. Indeed, the shattered Left — at its lowest point since World War II — soon accustomed itself to the prospect of a far-right ÖVP-FPÖ government, considered bound to last for a decade.

However, after a series of scandals over the last year, the FPÖ in fact suffered a big drop in support in the September 29 contest, in which it received just 16 percent of the vote (a 10 percent fall compared to the October 2017 election). After having mounted a seemingly unstoppable rise, the far-right party has now suddenly plunged. The precise consequences of its losses remain unpredictable, possibly including a split in its ranks. But more worrying is the fact that the election again showed the lack of any left-wing voice able to put up serious opposition to the ÖVP-FPÖ duo.

Instead, the big winner was the ÖVP itself. At thirty-three years old, its leader Sebastian Kurz is already a longstanding member of the government, committed to an authoritarian project in service of the interests of big capital. He has meticulously taken over the old conservative party, disempowering his internal opponents before becoming chancellor after the 2017 election. But while that vote two years ago at least seemed like a close race with the outgoing social-democratic chancellor, this year’s snap election was decided as soon as it was announced, after the Ibiza scandal forced the collapse of the conservative-nationalist coalition.

Indeed, victory for Kurz and his ÖVP was so certain that not even an awkward, badly handled election campaign — dripping with scandals around shredded government hard-drives and absurdly high party donations from the superrich — could compromise it. Indeed, Kurz’s conservatives ultimately scored almost twice the vote of the second-placed SPÖ. Yet other results also pointed to the possibility of a historic realignment in Austrian politics — integrating the Greens into a coalition with the traditional center-right.

Hit by Scandal

A few days before the September 29 vote, the situation had appeared much less dramatic. Little change was expected, apart from shifts within the right-wing and left-liberal sides of the political spectrum. In fact, even after election day and the FPÖ’s collapse, there is still a solid right-wing majority, but the fact the ÖVP-FPÖ duo no longer hold a two-thirds majority means the Right no longer has the automatic power to force through constitutional measures.

At the same time, a lot clearly has changed. In the first place, there is no realistic coalition option that does not include the ÖVP. This also heightens the possibility that the Greens — the other big winner in the September 29 election — and the ÖVP could form a coalition government at a federal level. This is the first time that such an arrangement has even seemed possible since the aftermath of the 2002 elections, when talks ultimately broke down. Conversely, the social-democratic SPÖ suffered such a bad result that it seems impossible that this party will be picking the chancellor any time soon.

Before the actual day of the vote, it did not seem that the Ibiza affair had deeply wounded the FPÖ. The video, published by two German media outlets, showed Strache talking to an unidentified woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch at a luxury resort. He and his partner in crime Gudenus offered her the sale of water rights, a political reorganization of the media landscape, and lucrative public contracts in exchange for campaign support. The broadcasting of this footage led the FPÖ to fall back 2.5 percent in May’s European elections, but it then recovered to above 20 percent in polls ahead of the September 29 contest.

However, a week before the election, another expenses affair, also connected to former deputy chancellor Strache, shook the public. In addition to the absurdly high salary Strache received as a politician, it was revealed that his wife Philippa Strache was also taking sums as an expenses allowance from the FPÖ. Indeed, the Straches’ expenses were being settled by his party on a large scale, even including housing subsidies from the party.

While the Ibiza video shook voter confidence in the FPÖ less than leftists had hoped, these new revelations struck a fatal blow at a party which likes to present itself as the party of working-class Austrians. Perhaps Strache’s attempt to sell the Austrian press to a Russian oligarch was tolerated, as a kind of self-defense against media which the FPÖ demonizes as “dominated by the Left.” But the fact that Strache was obviously lining his own pockets had a stronger demobilizing effect on FPÖ voters. Almost a quarter of a million FPÖ voters stayed home, while a slightly larger number defected to the ÖVP.

Green Shoots

Apart from Kurz’s party, the other big winners in last Sunday’s vote were the Greens. The previous general election in 2017 had marked an end to its unbroken thirty-one-year spell in parliament, after the party ditched its youth organization (the Young Greens) as well as one of its most media-savvy parliamentarians. However, on September 29 the Greens returned to the Nationalrat: with 13.9 percent support, they far surpassed the 4 percent threshold to enter parliament, and elected their largest-ever number of MPs.

This success comes at the end of a period of tumult for the Greens. Indeed, for years the Young Greens had called for numerous structural reforms within the party, from an opening toward grassroots members and activists to the breakup of an inflated apparatus and greater internal democracy. This youth section was expelled in early 2017 (becoming Young Left), just months before the party lost all twenty-four of its MPs in that October’s general election.

As the Greens lost two-thirds of their vote and dwindled to an extra-parliamentary force, the call for internal reforms became unavoidable. The transformation from an electoral party centered on its parliamentary group and party leadership to a more democratic, grassroots party was, indeed, taken as a matter of political survival. No longer enjoying state funding, the Greens were forced to better involve their members in political processes, drawing upon their own resources and commitment instead of paid staff.

At that point, the impossibility of sustaining the party’s vast apparatus made restructuring the Green Party a necessity. But with the wave of climate protests and the present rise in publicity around environmental issues, the Greens have been able to regain strength without actually confronting their many weaknesses and effectively democratizing the party. Having returned to parliament, they can keep on working like they did before their meltdown in 2017.

The help the Greens received in this election campaign from the rising global prominence of climate issues was also combined with the massive weakness of social democracy. While slightly more than 160,000 voters moved from the Greens to the SPÖ at the October 2017 election, this time, almost 200,000 voters came (back) from the SPÖ to the Greens. The full consequences of these shifts remain to be decided.

What we can see is that a new government coalition between Kurz’s conservative ÖVP and the Greens seems almost already to have been agreed upon. The first messages and the rhetoric since election night have clearly pointed in that direction. Austria is probably going to see a government that takes some pragmatic steps on the topics of environment and transport, for example by introducing a nationwide low-cost public transport ticket. This augurs a rhetorical shift from the ÖVP-FPÖ obsession with “security” to a greater discussion of “the future.” But while many important budget cuts and gifts to big capital in the form of tax privileges have already been pushed through, we cannot expect a ÖVP-Green government to turn away from this dominant economic and financial policy.

Chances for the Left

Strache’s resignation, after his expenses affair, could amount to a split in the Freedom Party, and indeed see him running as an independent in the Vienna city elections in 2020. This could bring setbacks for the FPÖ like it suffered after its previous major split in 2005, when it lost as much as half its vote in some federal states and even failed to make one of the state parliaments. This could lead to a large demobilization of its voters and a loss of coherence on the far right of Austrian politics.

Despite their strong result, the Greens face challenges of their own — indeed, a coalition with the conservative ÖVP at the federal level could bring the party difficulties in maintaining its credibility, particularly in Vienna.

In order to understand the Greens’ potential for growth, it is important to recognize the typical characteristics of their electorate — urban, young, female, liberal, and well-educated. On September 29 they did especially well among voters with a high school diploma or university degree: indeed, among university graduates, 37 percent voted for the Greens, whereas only 3 percent of voters who completed apprenticeship training instead of attending high school opted for this party.

When it comes to their program, the Greens do put across a more left-wing image than the SPÖ. But given their appearance, their attitude, and the social milieu they represent, the Greens are perceived by many as moralizing, complacent, and detached from most of the population. Party activists often find it rather a mystery that they are perceived as an elite party rather than a broad social movement. Part of the problem is a tendency to address key issues on a moral level rather in terms of tangible interests able to improve people’s everyday lives.

In this sense, the Greens have failed to answer a key problem of Austrian politics — the fact that society is increasingly separating into rich and poor and, indeed, along the dividing line of educational attainment. This is no coincidence, for the Greens do not see politics as an instrument of collective organization and self-emancipation, but a matter of educating others about the supposed “best solutions.”

In the Vienna city government — an alliance of the Greens and the SPÖ — the Greens do try to portray themselves as the more left-wing partner. But if the party turns to alliance with Kurz at the federal level, this could open up space for an alternative left-wing project in Vienna, drawing on frustrated protest voters.

Vienna may not seem like a hub of discontent — annual studies often label it the most liveable city in the world. But these survey results express only the views of those able to afford living there, in particular as concerns housing costs. In Vienna, even the left-liberal parties — the Greens and the SPÖ — are entangled with construction capital and real estate speculation. Instead of providing affordable housing, they boost profits for the rich and powerful. This is indeed a key issue for the Left to tackle, enforcing a housing policy oriented towards residents, not big capital.

In recent years the Greens have also neglected the outer districts of Vienna, which are in any case poorly represented in the party’s electoral base. Working-class and peripheral neighborhoods are sorely lacking in infrastructure compared to the city center, an issue neither the SPÖ nor the Greens are doing anything much about. Indeed, the party’s record is not ever so progressive. Even aside from the council’s weak response to mounting racism, the very issue that most motivates the Green vote — the need for action on the climate — has drawn only symbolic efforts.

However, even faced with the weaknesses of these parties, building up an alternative left-wing force needs a lot of work, especially in terms of developing its media profile. Indeed, building such a force would have to be combined with a wider focus on organizing the surrounding political field. In the Austrian context, effectively organizing the scattered forces of the Left would require distinct campaign management with a well-crafted narrative and storytelling, professional appearance, and the willingness to learn to transfer successful work from one location to another, developing it in tandem.

This is all the more important given the disastrous results for the left-wing alliance in the September 29 contest — particularly in Vienna. The Communist KPÖ formed a coalition with a local left platform and various left-wing organizations, only for its already marginal position to weaken further, scoring just 0.78 percent of the vote. The newly launched party Wandel (“change”) was also unable to achieve substantial success. Founded in 2012, its narrative is centered around the need for equal distribution of wealth, equality of opportunity, and anti-capitalism, but it remains focused on national-level campaigns rather than building activist and party structures from the bottom-up. It and — even more so — the KPÖ lack the rooted structures necessary to bring about real change.

In this sense, the 2020 Vienna elections will be a key space for the Left to develop. In the long run, the Left cannot win if it is only strong in big cities — after all, half of the Austrian population lives in small towns and villages. At the same time, the Left cannot communicate effectively in the public if it doesn’t prove successful in the capital, home to nearly 25 percent of the Austrian population. The election in Vienna thus represents the next big chance for a bold new beginning.

Yet we are not facing a bright future. The Greens can hardly be expected to halt and reverse Austria’s right-wing turn in any effective way. The ÖVP is better-established than ever before and will pursue its project to cleanse the state apparatus of the SPÖ. In past decades, the jobs in the state apparatus were divided between the SPÖ and the ÖVP. However, this long tradition of sharing out of jobs on a party basis was shaken by Kurz’s coalition with the far right. As a consequence, substantial leeway in decision-making at many operational levels will be shifted even further to the right. But if the Left succeeds in tackling the big parties’ claim of media attention by appearing professional and offering a strong alternative narrative, chances could arise.