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How Austria’s Greens Became the Right’s Best Ally

Austria’s right-wing chancellor Sebastian Kurz promises his coalition with the Greens will “protect both the climate and the borders.” But while the Greens have accepted a right-wing agenda on immigration, the partners’ shared neoliberal assumptions will hobble action on the climate.

Election campaign posters of the Austrian Green Party prior to elections to the National Council on September 27, 2019 in Vienna, Austria. Michael Gruber / Getty

If a government uniting Austria’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Greens may sound unusual, liberal media internationally have already hailed it as a “modern” and “progressive” project. The German daily Die Welt went so far as to depict the thirty-three-year-old chancellor Sebastian Kurz on its front page alongside Greta Thunberg, heralding the ÖVP leader and the climate activist as two “heroes of our days,” representing a new, young generation of leaders.

Such positive readings would suggest that this government is going to take climate change seriously — and perhaps also turn away from the national-populism of Kurz’s previous government, based on an alliance with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Yet a look at the new coalition does little to confirm such hopes. Austria faces the continuation of the authoritarian policies and right-wing realignment we saw over the last two years — this time, with a dash of green paint.

What Happened?

In one sense, Austria’s recent elections can be viewed as a political turning point. After all, since December 2017, the country had been ruled by a coalition of the Right and far right, also eased by Kurz’s reinvention of the traditional center-right party, since he became ÖVP leader the previous July. He pushed racist and anti-immigrant positions, paving the way for a common project with the far-right FPÖ.

Even though the main center-left party, the Social Democrats, had slipped into a major crisis and failed to organize any significant opposition, the coalition ended with a bang. In May 2019, the so-called “Ibiza Scandal” forced FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache to resign, when a video of him offering state contracts in exchange for party donations to an alleged niece of a Russian oligarch was made public. In response, Kurz called for a snap election. Though he himself had to resign as a result of the affair, his ÖVP emerged as the clear victor of the election with 37.5 percent of the vote.

However, results night on September 27 showed that there was also a second, more surprising winner: the Green Party received almost 14 percent of the vote, its highest ever score in a national election. This ended a two-year-crisis the party had been going through, having lost all its seats in the last election in 2017 as a result of the expulsion of its youth organization, the resignation of its party leader, and a split with one of its most popular parliamentarians.

The Greens’ recovery owed more to developments outside of the party rather than any internal reforms. Its success was, in large measure, due to the visibility brought by the global climate movement, which redounded positively on a party seen to embody “green issues.” Yet within the Austrian parliamentary system its result also owed to the intense crisis of social democracy, effectively carrying the Greens into a position where the party’s leading circles as well as liberal media made out that its only viable option was to join Kurz’s government.

Even on results night it was obvious that any coalition with the right-wing ÖVP would require the Greens to accept enormous compromises. Yet party leader Werner Kogler — who had announced only a few months earlier that the chance of his party entering a coalition led by Kurz was “zero percent” — hurried to enter negotiations. The agreement Kogler ultimately signed can accurately be described as a continuation of the authoritarian project of the ÖVP-FPÖ government, complemented by some cosmetic measures appealing to the Greens’ own clientele.

Despite a few critical voices, left-wing opposition within the Greens was limited to a small minority. Indeed, the coalition deal was approved by the party congress with an overwhelming 93 percent majority. Most Green voters themselves welcomed the deal joyfully — and recent polls show that the party is now more popular than ever before.

A glimpse at the Greens’ social base shows why this shouldn’t necessarily surprise us. Some Green voters might identify as left-wing. Yet most of the party’s base are highly educated and financially well off. They are not the people who will suffer from continued welfare cuts and the neoliberal policies the new government is pushing forward.

The Program

Kurz quickly moved to reframe the Greens’ issues as his own, proclaiming that the new government’s aim would be to “protect both the climate and the borders.” This didn’t just show that the former ÖVP-FPÖ government’s racist framing of inhumane immigration policy as “protecting the border” will live on in this new coalition. Rather, Kurz also set the agenda for what we can expect the new partners’ common project to be.

Both coalition partners have presented the program as a result of a division of labor, with Kurz describing it as “the best of both worlds.” While the Greens decided to prioritize measures against climate change, the ÖVP could continue its inhumane and racist immigration policy. It also wants to continue the authoritarian remodeling of the state and putting forward economic policies for big capital, along the lines of the reduction in business tax and the massive welfare cuts under the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition.

Those who had hoped that Green participation in government would put an end to this course of action will be sorely disappointed. The “Turquoise-Green” pact, as the coalition has been called according to the parties’ respective colors, is a right-wing, neoliberal project in its core, complemented by some cosmetic green measures, as well as individual progressive policies.

Climate protection does play an important role in the program — and there are some ambitious measures proposed. Plans include price reductions on public transport and a nationwide switch to renewable energies. Yet the climate crisis is addressed in a way that does nothing to tackle the cornerstones of Kurz’s political project, while even the bid to “step in the right direction” is limited by a refusal to challenge capital’s interests.

Firstly, because cheaper train tickets won’t automatically reduce car traffic, absent the other conditions to encourage people to use public transport. Indeed, proposing an “ecological tax reform,” while at the same time lowering business tax, shows how little the new government is willing to attack fossil and automotive industries that play directly into the further escalation of the climate crisis.

The government’s approach instead seems to be to incentivize private capital to invest in “green technologies.” But the climate crisis is only to be fought insofar as this is compatible with the interests of profit. Instead of treating climate change as the inherent product of capitalist accumulation which it is, the Greens’ position suggests that there is a compromise to be found between “protecting the climate” and maintaining the status quo.

While there certainly is a “green touch” to the program, many of the government’s proposals sound like they have been taken straight out of the its predecessor’s plans. Despite mentions of a so-called “anti-poverty package,” the policy actually proposed sounds rather more cynical: instead of reversing the welfare cuts implemented under the ÖVP-FPÖ government, the plan now is to lower income tax, and carry forward actions such as the so-called “family bonus” — a tax break outwardly put into place to fight child poverty, which in reality in only benefits those who earn enough to pay income tax. The poorest third of the in-work Austrian population, as well as the unemployed, are thus left empty-handed.

Here as elsewhere, what the program leaves out is often more telling than what it does address. The highly controversial expansion of the maximum working day to twelve hours, introduced in 2017, is simply not mentioned, and therefore remains unchallenged.

Despite all this, supporters of the new coalition government can be found in both leftist and liberal circles. They argue that even though it will not bring fundamental change, the government would at least mitigate the furthering of racist exclusion and human rights violations. Yet the reality of what the two parties have already agreed tells quite a different story. For the Greens, too, have signed up to further segregation measures directed against ethnic minorities, operating under the guise of integration. This includes a ban on headscarves for schoolchildren under the age of fourteen — to which the Green party has already agreed — and demands by the ÖVP to outlaw Muslim teachers wearing the headscarf as well.

Projects such as the reallocation of mandatory legal counsel for asylum seekers from independent NGOs to a government-run agency — proposed by the former far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl and widely criticized for infringing basic rights — will now be implemented. The government pact even includes a clause making it possible for the two coalition partners to vote differently in parliament in case of a “migration crisis.” This will allow the ÖVP to ignore the Green Party’s red lines regarding immigration policy and continue implementing their exclusionary racist fantasies with the votes of their former coalition partner, the FPÖ.

What About the Left?

From the minute the coalition deal was made public, Green Party leaders and supporters heaped attacks on real and potential left-wing critics, asking the rhetorical question which would supposedly preclude discussion: “Would you rather have the far-right FPÖ in government again?” The Green Party presents the deal as the only option — and every critic as unreasonable. According to this logic, any criticism of the government will only serve to weaken the Green Party, and therefore play into the hands of the far right.

However, the argument that a fresh ÖVP-FPÖ government would have been “worse” than the coalition Austria ended up with, misses a crucial point. For the Greens decision to accept the hard right-wing, authoritarian politics of the former government as a benchmark for what “good politics” look like and play along with the logic of the “lesser evil” contributes to shifting public discourse even further to the Right.

The fact that this particular dynamic has spread so quickly following the announcement of the new coalition exemplifies a disillusioning truth about Austrian politics: since there is no relevant left-wing force, convincingly engaging in a struggle against capitalist exploitation and oppression, politics has been reduced to a technocratic endeavor, to do with managing the status quo. In light of the new government, it has become even more obvious that there is no force organizing the fight to improve the material conditions of people’s lives.

With such a Left absent, the Greens’ own ambitions are deeply limited. The fact that the need to make a Kurz-led government “more bearable” has become the main argument for their participation in government shows how little of an actual political vision they have. Indeed, while this coalition needs to be taken seriously — as a new political expression of the neoliberal project — there is little room to be disappointed in the Greens.

It has been clear for a long time that their goal is not a fundamental transformation of society, but rather to be allowed to play along with the established parties. For the Left, the question is to go beyond this, building a serious opposition to the government and convincingly building a political project ready to fight the interests of capital in the defense of working people — and our planet.