On 16 January 2010, 50 Antifascists demonstrated against the conference of the far right party founded by Jörg Haider, the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ - Alliance for Future Austria), in Carinthia. The conference was called to decide on the fusion of the BZÖ in Carinthia, and the Freedom Party (FPÖ), the party Haider spilt from in 2005, three years before his death in 2008.
Although small, the protest was a very good one. The mood was combative. Young Carinthian members of the Socialist Left Party (SLP - CWI in Austria), which has now established a presence in Carinthia, had mobilised their friends to come along and spoke to the crowd. Especially at the closing rally, many people passing by stopped to listen to their speeches and applauded spontaneously. The changing mood in Carinthia was indicated by the many papers sold by SLP activists.
Last December, the Austrian state had to take over the bank previously co-owned by the regional government, Hypo Group Alpe-Adria (HGAA), and sold in 2007 to Bayern LB, the bank owned by Bavarian regional government in Germany. It was on the verge of collapse and threatened to take Carinthia with it into bankruptcy. Rumours have been circulating about risky speculation and corruption on the part of the BZÖ, the ruling party in Carinthia. All of this has led to mounting anger among workers and youth in Carinthia, with many looking for an alternative to the established parties.
The BZÖ, which split from the Freedom Party in 2005, due to a crisis which developed after Freedom Party took part in a national government coalition with the conservative ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party). Jörg Haider especially, pushed for the split, forming the BZÖ, with Carinthia as its main ‘home base’. Before Haider’s death in October 2008, he was head of the regional government, and the BZÖ (and the Freedom Party before the split) has traditionally had a very strong base of support in Carinthia. In the rest of Austria, the BZÖ was much weaker than the Freedom Party (in the 2008 general elections, the FPÖ polled 17.5 % and the BZÖ 10.7% nationally). With Haider’s death, its support was further weakened outside Carinthia, whereas the Freedom Party increased its support.
Political Situation in Carinthia
The BZÖ acts in a very arrogant way in Carinthia. They promote themselves as a "social homeland party", but their policies, in practice, are a mix of piecemeal reforms for Austrian citizens (but not for immigrants) and social cuts. The BZÖ in Carinthia, like the FPÖ, uses divide and rule tactics, with the BZÖ in regional government carrying out what the FPÖ, so far, could only propose in their racist propaganda: discrimination against immigrants, making them second class citizens by excluding them from the social system.
At the same time, Haider and his party used public money; to increase subsidies to political parties (by €70 million), fund image-boosting campaigns for the regional government (€1.3 million in 2009) and finance projects which they thought important for image reasons (such as a football stadium for the Euro 2008 championship).
The consequences for working class people in Carinthia have been disastrous: 91,000 people live below the poverty line (16% of the population in Carinthia), 18,000 people are classified as "working poor", and 30,000 children have to live without sufficient heating, clothes or food. Carinthia’s debt have increased under BZÖ rule - it is now equivalent to €2,254 per capita. All of this is an indication of what the Freedom Party could do if it enters into regional government. In the Vienna elections, to be held next October, the FPÖ with its leader, H.C. Strache, will be presenting itself as an alternative for "the man on the street". Like the BZÖ, he will promote a programme of racism and false ’solutions’ to existing social problems. It is our task as socialists to reveal the true nature of these "concepts" and to give real answers, socialist answers, such as the shortening of working hours without loss of pay, and a minimum wage of €1200.
A strengthening of the far right in Austria?
The party conference of the BZÖ in Carinthia decided on transforming itself into the so-called FPK (Freiheitliche Partei Kärnten - Freedom Party of Carinthia, i.e. the Carinthian section of the Freedom Party).
After the verbal war between these two parties during recent years, the far right in Austria seems to have been reunited. Does this automatically mean a strengthening of the far right, or have the ‘tit for tat’ fights that accompanied the fusion weakened their support? After the split of the Freedom Party in 2005, the Socialist Left Party(CWI), was one of the few forces on the left that warned that this would not be the end of the far right in Austria. On the contrary, we argued that it would lay the basis for a consolidation of the Freedom Party as an opposition party after its period in government. The fascist forces within the FPÖ had gained influence after the split and the new FPÖ is a more dangerous formation than was the Haider-led FPÖ of the 1990s.
Some on the left believed that the split would solve the problem and that the far right would destroy itself, hence there was no need for the left to mobilise. However, the strengthening of the FPÖ in the years after 2005 proved our analysis correct. With the reuniting of the two parties, we have to warn again - and mobilise. Despite the ideological similarity of the Freedom Party and the new "FPK", conflicts can arise among the newlyweds. The forces that favour participation in government could be strengthened within the FPÖ, as FPK officials, in the last years, have gotten used to the privileges of being in power. Likewise the "anti-corruption" image of the FPÖ could be more difficult to promote, as the FPK still has to struggle with allegations of corruption.
In a period of social and economic crisis, the vacuum on the left nevertheless could provide fertile ground for a further growth of the Freedom Party’s support, in the long run. Whether the far right can be fought successfully depends on whether the left and the trade unions succeed in providing a working class alternative. During the protest movement in the universities, the FPÖ remained silent. The struggle against the far right can only be successful if it is combined with a struggle for social improvements, against cuts, job losses etc.
New elections in Carinthia - but no working class political alternative
The Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Green Party are demanding new elections in Carinthia to promote themselves as an alternative. However, all they do is to claim that they are better managers of the budget than the BZÖ. This is a threat to working class people in Carinthia. The SPÖ and the Greens have proved in other regional governments that they fundamentally stand for cuts and neo-liberal policies. These are the reasons behind the steady decline in the SPÖ’s support. Until 1989, it was the dominant party in Carinthia. As long as there is no working class alternative, in the form of a new workers’ party, there will be no solutions to Carinthia’s social problems. None of the established parties stand for the interests of working class people, immigrants or youth. The SPÖ is putting the racist demands of the FPÖ/FPK/BZÖ into practise - in Carinthia they supported many of the BZÖ’s policies, in Vienna they introduced a new "city security force".
Left alternative urgently needed
The warm response to our protests in Carinthia indicates that there are people are looking for an alternative. Many are clear that the SPÖ and the Greens have failed in providing this alternative. In Carinthia, the vacuum on the left is even bigger than in other parts of Austria, despite strong traditions of the left, such as the struggle of partisans against fascism during the 2nd World War. At the protest, many said they were relieved that, "finally somebody in Carinthia is doing something against the BZÖ. Not all of us are to the right." Others agreed with us, that a party that fights for working class people does not exist and is urgently needed. The Socialist Left Party is beginning to build in Carinthia. There are many opportunities for the CWI to grow in the South of Austria. The demonstrations and the anger among working class people in Carinthia show that there is the potential for resistance against the far right and its politics - and potential for a socialist alternative.