Since Saturday 23 April, a series of weak earthquakes have shaken Austria. But the only significant one was the political earthquake that came as a result of the first round of the presidential elections. Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right FPÖ came in first place, with over 35% of the vote. Far behind that, with about 20% came the favorite in all the opinion polls, Alexander Van der Bellen (VdB) from the Green Party. An independent, Irmgard Griss, came third with about 18%. The candidates of the government parties – the conservative ÖVP and the ex-social democratic SPÖ – both reached only around 11%.
Why so many votes for the far right?
Since the Austrian president’s role is mostly one of representation (although formally with a lot of power), used to greet foreign politicians and give a speech every New Year, many Austrians normally do not care too much about the presidential elections. The last election in 2010 had a turnout barely over 50%. The much bigger turnout this time of 68.5% showed that people are not unpolitical and was a surprise for many people, especially as the elections did not seem to bother anybody beforehand.
The background to the result is the deep frustration and anger about the policies of the government and the establishment parties. There is a general feeling of “it can’t go on like this” and there is widespread alienation with the government. The candidates that scored best were those who managed to present themselves as “different”, “independent”, “new” - although in reality none of them were.
Voters wanted to teach a lesson to the government and they used the elections to do so. During the campaign, the far-right candidate Hofer declared his plan to dismiss the government if it continues with its policies if he is elected. This is a presidential power which has never been used since the foundation of the second republic in 1945. It is hard to say if he would actually do this and if his voters actually want this to happen. But this threat to the government (which would most likely lose new general elections by a landslide) was seen as a great way to shock the establishment.
Most of the time, Hofer was speaking about refugees, but connecting his racism with the fears of working class voters. He has no programme at all to help Austrian workers deal with falling wages, record unemployment, the effects of the austerity offensives of the last years or the general fall in the standard of living. But Hofer’s election campaign presented refugees as now another threat to workers. With this lie, he was seen as the only candidate actually “answering” many fears of workers and youth, something which contributed a lot to his success. For many people, Hofer was seen as the “lesser evil” compared to the government.
Hofer benefited from the fact that no one has given any answers to the fears of working-class people, whether the government, the “opposition” or even the movement in solidarity with the refugees. The SLP, the Austrian section of the CWI, stressed from the beginning of the so called “refugee crisis” the need to make clear who has to pay for refugees’ support, homes and jobs. This money must not be taken from the working class and the poor, but from the rich. Our slogan “the rich have to pay” went down very well (even amongst people who voted for Hofer) but unfortunately was not taken up by the wider movement. So the FPÖ could present itself as the only party taking the fears of ordinary people seriously.
In reality, Hofer is a candidate of the establishment as all of the candidates are. Racism helps the capitalists to hide their responsibility for 1.4 million Austrians being threatened by poverty (out of a population of 8.7 million). Where in power, as in the regional states of Upper-Austria and Burgenland, the FPÖ is very much like the other parties of the rich but even more aggressive in attacking the poor. Austerity is combined with a “divide and rule” approach, attacking all workers and youth, but migrants harder. The strongest reason the FPÖ can still present itself successfully as an anti-establishment party is the fact that they are not confronted with a workers’ party, actually answering the real fears of workers with a fighting programme for minimum wages, affordable housing, jobs, health care ... financed by the billions the Austrian ruling class is hoarding.
How did it come to this?
The candidate of the SPÖ was the former chairman of the public sector workers union, former chairman of the main trade union federation and, until recently, Minister for social affairs. But over 60% of blue collar workers voted for Hofer. This reflects the alienation of many workers from both the SPÖ and the trade-union leadership as well as from the system of “social partnership”. The SPÖ still holds the most powerful positions in the unions. However they use this position to prevent all the anger of workers from translating into a fighting movement and most of the time, so far, they have been successful in this. The unions have been passive over the last decades, not answering attacks against gains that other generations of workers fought for. The capitalists have had a free hand in making workers and youth pay for their crisis.
In the absence of effective resistance in the form of union struggle and in the absence of a workers’ party, sections of the working-class turned to the far right for answers or simply to cast a protest vote, while others cast blank ballots.
This has been going on for a long time now, but during the last period unemployment has constantly been on the rise with now about 500,000 affected, officially 9.4%. With big companies going bankrupt, the crisis has had a further visible impact in Austria.
All this came together with the new level of refugees reaching Europe. Taking into account the fact that the top 1% of Austrians own €700 billion, the costs of taking care of refugees could be easily handled. But the capitalist parties in the government have instead spread panic, calling in the military, building border fences and so on. Of course with these racist fear-mongering all over the media, the FPÖ gained in the opinion polls. As a reaction to this the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition again increased their racism and anti-refugee measures in order to take back the votes they lost to the FPÖ. When the SPÖ-Minister of Defense says “We have to build border fences to stop the FPÖ,” he summarizes the government’s approach very well. So as in many other countries, it’s not any successful strategy that has made the far right so strong. Rather, it’s due to the failure of the other parties and the unions to answer the concrete fears of workers and youth.
What to do?
24 April left many in Austria with chills. The danger of a far-right President Hofer, together in the future with a far-right chancellor, Strache, is a realistic threat. The current government is increasingly unstable and the FPÖ, around its leader Strache, has been leading the polls for months.
A Hofer presidency would be a real threat to workers and youth in Austria. He comes from one of the many far-right student fraternities, which are all closely affiliated with the FPÖ. He stands for a racist, anti-women’s rights, anti-immigrant ideology. In the election campaign he proudly said that he carries his Glock pistol because of these “uncertain times”.
However, calling the FPÖ or Hofer fascist gives a wrong idea of what kind of threat they pose to workers and youth. There is no doubt that Austria, under the rule of the FPÖ would mean serious attempts at more repression, attacks on workers and especially immigrants’ rights, on women and youth and a watering down of democratic and trade union rights. But it would not mean the complete crushing of democratic rights and workers’ organisations seen in the 1930s under the Austro-fascist regimes of Dollfuss and Schuschnigg and then continued after Hitler took over Austria in 1938.
So when some on the left now try to build protests against Hofer simply around the theme of “antifascism” it is completely abstract and cannot win the mass of workers over. It is necessary to attack the FPÖ for their anti-social and anti-working class policies and for their corruption. Hundreds and thousands are in shock and want to do something about the danger of Hofer being elected in the second round of the election on 22 May.
The need to build a new workers’ party with a clear anti-capitalist programme, oriented toward mass movements, not parliamentary sessions, is vital. In fact, for the first time there is a small project going on that might have the potential to end up as such a party. The project “Aufbruch” (“Departure/Start”) is organizing a congress inviting all social activists to join a campaign to make the rich pay for social policies. This could be a starting point for something new.
Unfortunately, this congress will take place in June after the second and final round of the presidential election. Of course the strong position of the far right shocks many working class people and youth, and will give a boost to the project. But union rank-and-file activists, anti-racist youth and workers, migrants and many others live in fear of a Hofer Presidency and an FPÖ-chancellor after the next parliamentary elections. We need a concrete answer to these fears if we want to approach these important layers with our programme. Simply calling for a new workers’ party and reclaiming the unions is too abstract, since neither will happen before 22 May.
Alexander Van der Bellen, the other candidate in the second round, will not stop the further rise of the far-right. He is from right-wing of the Green Party, part of that mainstream-bourgeois club that made the FPÖ so strong in the first place. But a President Hofer, in a likely combination with an FPÖ-chancellor, is a real threat to workers’ rights and standard of living.
So for the second round of the presidential election the Socialist Left Party (SLP-CWI in Austria), while mobilizing for the “Aufbruch” congress on 3/4 June, is campaigning around the slogan “Against Hofer, the government and the system of the super-rich” and calling for a vote against Hofer, so in fact a vote for the Green candidate. It would be wrong for a revolutionary socialist organization to simply call for a vote for a pro-capitalist candidate. But we do not let this stand as our whole programme, we do not simply argue for a lesser evil vote but argue “vote for the Green candidate and prepare to struggle". The FPÖ’s recovery from the severe crisis it went through in the early 2000s shows that even a defeat for Hofer on May 22 would not end the far right threat. The key is building a new movement so the call for a vote against Hofer is just one part of the campaign against the FPÖ, the hated government, the effects of the crisis and for building a new workers party.
The SLP is part of an anti-fascist/anti-racist alliance that is calling for a demonstration before the second round of the elections. We are pushing for a slogan like “Against Hofer, the government and the system of the super-rich!” To concentrate only on the far-right character of Hofer would fall short, so it is very important to attack Hofer for his neoliberal, anti-worker positions alongside his racism and to make clear that he is a threat to workers and youth. In our opinion, the mission should not be to collect votes for the other candidate but to stop workers from voting for Hofer.
But our main aim is to speed up the process of building a new workers’ party, given the shock that exists. We encourage the “Aufbruch” process not to wait until after its June congress to start campaigning, but to already start building local branches.
These events, particularly the crash of the SPÖ’s vote to just 11.3%, may be the wake-up call for the last few left-wingers inside weakening SPÖ. During the large May Day parades organised by the SPÖ, we will encourage their rank and file to finally break with their old party and join the process of building a new workers’ party.
Instead of a racist president, we need a joint fight of all workers and youth in Austria, no matter whether they were born here or if they are migrants or refugees, for our common interests: we all need housing, we all need a real job with a living wage, a well-financed health care and education system and much more. We will not get this by fighting amongst ourselves; that is what the FPÖ and the other parties of the rich want. With a new workers’ party we will finally have the tool to reclaim the unions and organize this long-overdue fight!