“A red-white-red signal of hope and positive change; a red-white-red signal today goes from Austria to all the capitals of the European Union.”
So said the self-satisfied liberal Van der Bellen in his victory speech after winning the election for the ceremonial post of President of the Austrian Republic.
This election contest eventually took four rounds before a winner could finally be named. The first election, with six candidates, ended as a disaster for the candidates of the two governing parties - the social democrats and the Christian democrats - who jointly received less than 23 per cent of the votes. Three outsiders - the right-wing opposition candidate Hofer, and the independents liberals, Van der Bellen and Irmgrad Griess - came first, second, and third respectively. This lead to the fall of the social democratic Prime Minister Faymann.
The second round of this first election, however, was cancelled through the courts in May due to irregularities in the election process. The result of this contest was very narrow, with the liberal Van der Bellen receiving only 31,000 votes more than the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer.
The re-arranged second round elections were scheduled for October. But in a farcical situation (caused by technical problems with faulty glue) it had to be postponed once more.
The election was finally held on 4th December, and in the name of “stability” the results were immediately accepted by all parties. Van der Bellen won with a margin of 350,000 votes (53.8%), on a relatively high turnout of 74%, in an unexpectedly clear victory.
The international media emphasised the Austrian result as being a sign of hope after the shocks of Brexit and Trump’s presidential victory, and also after the victories of pro-Russian presidential candidates in Moldova and Bulgaria.
A recent comment piece in The Guardian reflects this relief. After writing scornfully about the “angry white male working-class” (interesting how for these people the working class only exists when they have to underline their own self-supposed cultural superiority), the author has a positive message for the Establishment:
“Rather than seeing Clinton and Van der Bellen as anomalies, blips in an inevitable trend towards populist radical right dominance, liberal democratic parties and politicians of all persuasions should learn lessons from their successes. (…) Copying populist messages may work for one or two elections, if that, but will inflict lasting damage on liberal democracy in the long run. The vast majority of the people are looking for convincing and consistent policies that address the realities of today’s challenges in an inclusive and positive way.”
Let us address these “realities”.
Coalition of interests
The campaign of Van der Bellen was the most heterogeneous political campaign that has ever been seen in a developed capitalist country. It was orchestrated and financed by the leading bank, the Raiffeisenbank - a financial giant that dominates not only vast swathes of the economy, but is closely associated with the conservative party, dominating the political and cultural life in the majority of the 2,000 towns and villages in the country. It also controls a corporate media group of leading daily papers and news magazines.
At the same time, the heads of the major parties - the social democrats and the conservatives - called for support for Van der Bellen. Similarly with the leaders of the main unions and the heads of the Catholic and Evangelic church. All the intellectuals came out for Van der Bellen’s campaign, including pop stars. The liberal opposition party, NEOS, a split from the conservative ÖVP, called for a vote for Van der Bellen. The Greens, the party that nominated Van der Bellen, put all their weight behind the campaign.
For the first time, there was the newly seen phenomena of a dirty campaign financed by a liberal industrialist, who warned of mass layoffs and bankruptcies in the case of a Hofer win, which was described as being the start of “Öxit”, the Austrian exit from the EU.
On top of all of this, there were hundreds of initiatives of individuals, trade unionists, school students, etc. that campaigned for Van der Bellen; or rather, who wanted to do anything to stop the far-right from taking office in the Hofburg, the office of the Federal President.
So we can see that behind this supposedly glowing victory for the establishment candidate there are a whole array of conflicting interests and ideas, and no coherent political programme at all.
Exit polls give a clear indication of this; 42 per cent of the voters of the elected president did so for one only reason: to the stop the right-winger taking office. This is also reflected in the increased voter participation. In May, Van der Bellen won 200,000 votes from those who abstained in the first round of the elections; now, in December, his campaign convinced another 170,000 to participate who had previously abstained. The only motivation for these people was to block the right-winger.
Following the 4th December vote, this unique alliance has outlived itself and is now ancient history.
Hofer wins over the angry
On the other side there was Norbert Hofer,the candidate of the right-wing FPÖ. His voters want a break with the political system of the Second Republic. But also here for different reasons.
His candidature in reality was also a coalition of contradictory forces - but in this case all linked to one single party, the right-wing FPÖ, which has been leading all the polls for two years now.
We see that the lower the average income of area, the higher the share of the votes for Hofer. 85% of blue-collar workers voted for him. The main reasons given by his voters for supporting him wanting a “change in politics” (62%)and to “protest against government policies” (34%). By contrast, only 8% of the voters for Van der Bellen named these two motives.
It is clear that the FPÖ has galvanised this protest vote - which is strong amongst the working class, but also amongst layers of the petit bourgeoisie - and is using it as a lever to carry out anti-working class policies. The party apparatus wants to be back in government, which it participated in between 2000-2007. That government was characterised by harsh attacks on the living standards of the masses. This lead to a split and a fall in popular support for the party, which back in the mid-2000s polled less than 10% and was basically reduced to its core supporters of the so called “third camp”, the national liberal bourgeois camp. On the base of a renewed grand coalition that was re-established in 2007, the FPÖ for ten years was able in elections to accumulate all the discontent in society.
Break up of "national unity"
The ruling grand coalition is de facto a government of national unity that manages a country that is stuck in a permanent crisis. For five uninterrupted years, unemployment has been on the rise, with 450,000 now unemployed, the highest rate since the end of the Second Word War. Incomes for the working class have stagnated for two decades; precarious employment and house prices have risen steeply. New labour contracts brought in since the crisis of 2008-09 offer an average of 30% less than those from before the crisis.
Saving the banks was the government’s top priority in recent years, with a bill of nearly 20 billion euros so far. Parliamentary investigations into corruption and mismanagement did not provide any conclusions. At the end of the day, the different departments of the establishment look out for each other.
The tops of the trade unions are fully integrated into this system of national unity. They did not lead any social protests for many years, and they act as an executioner for the attacks on living standards. This has led to a growing impotence on the factory floor for these nominally mighty organisations.
Despite all the efforts to maintain the political situation and provide “stability”, therefore, the accumulated contradictions in society are seeking to find an expression. And at the moment they do so by strengthening the FPÖ – for the simple reason that all other avenues are blocked.
The strategy of the FPÖ consists of waiting until the system of institutionalised class-collaboration falls under its own weight. It is clear that over the last months the leadership the FPÖ was given an indication from leading sectors of the bourgeoisie that they should “get ready for taking government responsibility”. Its leaders have since adopted a more responsible language and have also changed some important political promises. For example, they have even embraced pro-EU policies, including in details like the call for an open labour market.
Traditional parties in crisis
Meanwhile the social democracy and the conservative parties are in a state of open crisis. It is clear that the consistent postponement of the presidential election acted as a brake on the process of the government’s fragmentation. In the name of institutional stability, the elections were postponed three times. Now that this hurdle has been overcome, we will see how the government’s crisis develops after its Christmas break. The most probable outcome is for new early elections to be held in the coming year.
This perspective is based on the fact that the once large popular parties are constantly losing support. The conservatives poll less than 20 per cent; the social democrats could stabilise with the new Prime Minister at around 25-27 per cent. But the FPÖ constantly stands at well above 30%. So waiting till 2018 will only lead to the situation deteriorating further.
The big industrialists are getting nervous, as all economic indicators in the country are becoming worse than in the main export market, Germany. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, Austrian imperialism is having greater and greater problems as a result of “political risks”, with the “new reality” of nationalist governments in a series of countries that dare to conduct policies that take into account the interests of their own corrupt bourgeois, instead of accepting that foreign capital calls the shots, as it has done in the past.
Everything is set for a political realignment through early elections. The majority of capitalists are clearly pushing for a bourgeoisie block government of the FPÖ and the conservative ÖVP. They want to improve the position of Austrian capitalism, with all its deteriorating indicators of competitiveness in terms of the main export industries.
This perspective leads to the prospect of open civil wars within the social democracy and the conservatives. In the conservative party, the party leader is deeply unpopular. Several factions would like to challenge his leadership. These factions have the support of the majority of the party, and also of the leading capitalists like Raiffeisenbank. So whilst this bank was fully behind the election of Van der Bellen for the presidency, it has constantly built up the young foreign minister Sebastian Kurz as the new party leader at the same time.
Surviving through racist demagogy
Kurz is a black canvas; he has been a minister for years, but has carefully managed not to get involved in the daily dirty business of politics. He started as a liberal, unsuccessfully rebranding the conservative party as the choice of the jeunesse dorée [the gilded youth]. Later, Kurz and other conservative ministers demagogically used the refugees crisis to advance a policy of cuts and attacks on democratic rights, justified with an openly racist agenda. In the absence of any terrorist attacks, a state of emergency has been advocated with technical arguments like “refugee levels above 37,500 per year would trigger the collapse of the health system”. If this argument were true, then as little as a simple flu-virus could send the country into a state of bankruptcy, chaos and anarchy.
These conservative ministers are attempting to connect with the mood amongst the most backward layers of society, promote new laws and initiatives that are all linked to racist arguments. HC Strache, leader of the FPÖ, who was told by the capitalists to demonstrate his responsibility in representing the common interests of the bourgeoisie, even lamented openly how he is the real racist and not those demagogues within the conservatives.
On the other hand, the SPÖ and the union apparatuses are increasingly orienting towards forming a coalition with the FPÖ themselves. This means breaking with the status quo of the last 30 years in which the far-right FPÖ have been excluded from the political game. In Vienna, this conflict over the tactical orientation of the party is leading to an on-going civil war in the party, which has dominated the city for a century, only interrupted by the period of fascism.
It is not yet clear whether these political reorientations inside the old political formations, triggered by the approaching end of the “national unity” strategy, will temporarily stabilise the government, or if they will sped up the process of open conflicts. In the absence of an upswing in the economy, which is excluded, it is clear that the programme of national unity is finished; it is now only a matter of waiting for the official death-certificate.
No working class expression
After another decade of class collaboration in government and in the factories, the organisations of the working class are deserted. They lack even the most basic content, and refuse to talk about concrete action or independent class policies. As a result, the bureaucratic apparatuses are left to pursue tactical reorientations in order to somehow cling to power.
It is obvious that the political Left has been completely shattered by the processes taking place. The election campaign of Van der Bellen accelerated this ongoing isolation and impotence of the Left, with all individuals and organisations once more retreating to an open political support of this liberal as the “lesser evil”. Van der Bellen used the space he was granted to put forward right-wing gestures and policies. He leaned on the so-called “traditions” of rural Austria, openly embraced the deadly Frontex-regime, advocated cuts on public spending, and specifically called for “unity”, even throwing his weight against those who wanted to fight an offensive campaign and stage demonstrations against Hofer. Only after the election did he clearly state that his victory is a victory for the stability of the system, for austerity, and for the European institutions. So the year 2016 also marks the capitulation of the left to liberalism.
But the real news is this: the victory of Van der Bellen indicates that the ruling class has chosen what it thinks is a reliable and tested candidate to lead Austria during the collapse of the political premises of the Second Republic - that of peaceful class collaboration. This was the main idea of Van der Bellen’s backers amongst the bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy of the labour movement. Whereas the Raiffeisenbank played a big part in his campaign, on the other hand they are preparing the bourgeois-bloc government. At the same time, many leading trade unionists openly backed Van der Bellen, while at the same time fighting for a reorientation of the social democratic party to form a coalition with the right-wing FPÖ.
So 2016 marks also the year in which the precarious structures that have managed to hold since the outbreak of the capitalist crisis of 2008 finally collapsed. We, as Marxists, understand that this is a prior condition for the working class to achieve an independent political expression. Only in this way can the malaise in society be overcome: by a victorious class war against capitalism.