SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 123 - November 2008

Two Austrian crashes hit the headlines

ONLY TWO weeks after massive gains for the far right in the 28 September general election, the still-existing government rescued Austrian banks with a €100 billion (£78bn) package. On 10 October, the Vienna stock exchange closed for two hours, such were the massive losses on the stock market.

One day later, news broke that Jörg Haider, widely regarded as the ideological ‘father’ of the far right in Austria, died after losing control of his car at 142 km/h (88 mph) in a 70 km/h zone, his blood-alcohol level way above the legal limit. His party, Alliance for Austria’s Future (BZÖ), which split from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 2005, had jumped from 4% to nearly 11% in the elections. Officials of all parties rushed to say how sorry they were and what a ‘great talent’ Haider had been. Hardly anyone dared utter a word of political criticism. His funeral was turned into a state event, with leaders of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) attending as well as proponents of the far right. This will further foster the image of Haider and the far right as ‘respectable’.

Haider had led the FPÖ during its rise in the 1990s, when it gained protest votes on the basis of the SPÖ having moved to the right. Haider’s parents were supporters of the Nazi regime, and he was a member of the far-right Burschenschaft Sylvania, repeatedly making provocative positive statements about Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. He had ‘deported’ asylum seekers from Carinthia, where he was head of the regional state government, to other Austrian regions to underline his hardliner image. He was leading a battle against the Slovenian minority in Carinthia and against dual-language road signs for villages with Slovenian inhabitants when he died.

The FPÖ had been in government from 2000 until the Haider wing split away in 2005 to form the BZÖ, which remained part of the government until the 2006 election. While in government, the FPÖ was co-responsible for big pension cuts in 2003, the introduction of tuition fees and privatisation and, consequently, lost electoral support.

Haider’s death will not mean the end of the far right in Austria. The BZÖ is now more likely to reunite with the FPÖ, or could fall apart and be soaked up by it. This has meant that a grand coalition of the SPÖ and ÖVP is more likely again – a potentially unstable ‘coalition of the losers’. Before Haider’s death, a coalition of the two far-right parties and the ÖVP had been a theoretical option. In the deepening economic crisis, any new grand coalition will be a recipe for the further growth of the far right, unless working-class anger can be channelled in support for the left, and class struggles lead to a strengthening of the workers’ movement and towards the formation of a new mass workers’ party.

The €100 billion bank rescue was a panic reaction to the collapse of the Vienna stock market – in line with international events. It shattered the argument that Austria would not be affected by the crisis, which had been put forward by the government and big business before reality struck. Austria’s gross domestic product (GDP) is €286 billion. The rescue package therefore would be worth more than a third of GDP. Compared to other countries this is a very large sum.

The government still claims that Austrian banks are not in trouble and that this is merely a precautionary measure. With the collapse of Iceland, though, it became clear that Austrian banks had credits to Icelandic banks on their balance sheets that amounted to almost €3 billion. The first bank that was bailed out was the Constantia Private Bank, owned by a millionaire who had wanted to get rid of it anyway and had already removed her €400 million fortune from it. Constantia was taken over by the five biggest Austrian banks with state guarantees for their €400 million liquidity injection. For years the Austrian working class had been told that pensions and the health system would have to be cut because there was not enough money. It is clear that workers will have to pay the price for this crisis while the rich get away with huge sums of money.

Economic growth is now projected to slow to a mere 0.9% in 2009 – provided that the financial crisis does not have any further impact! Austria is especially vulnerable to a world economic downturn as it depends on exports, to a large extent, and is highly engaged in Eastern European markets. The effects can already be felt in layoffs and workplace closures. In upcoming wage negotiations, employers will try to keep pay increases low. However, the working class can not afford wage rises below 4%, in view of high inflation.

The election had seen the SPÖ and ÖVP lose massively. The SPÖ slid from 35% to under 30%, the ÖVP from 34% to 26%, historically low for both. One in five voters abstained. Support for the FPÖ rose from 11% to 17.5%, while Haider’s BZÖ won 11%. This gave the far right a combined total of 1.38 million, over 28%, 136,000 more than its previous high in 1999. The reason that the SPÖ vote did not completely collapse was due to a revival of ‘lesser evilism’, and the left-wing rhetoric of its leader, Werner Faymann. The only party that more or less stood still was the Greens, down 10,000 to 510,000 votes.

The increase in votes for the far right, to a large extent, represents a protest against the government and concern about inflation, the cost of living, and an increasing fear of the future, with jobs at risk. The FPÖ, BZÖ, and ÖVP rivalled each other on which was the most racist, and hardest on asylum seekers. Youth, especially 16-year-olds, who were allowed to vote for the first time, seem to have voted FPÖ in large numbers. In Haider’s home base, Carinthia, the BZÖ got 38.5% of the vote.

In an attempt to boost his popularity, Faymann, tried to move a ‘five-point programme’ in parliament, including cutting the VAT tax on food by half. This was opposed by the Greens, BZÖ and ÖVP. Tuition fees, though, were abolished, with the votes of the SPÖ, FPÖ and Greens. (Fees had been introduced after 2000 by the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. Fees still have to be paid by non-EU citizens, and by students who study for longer than a specified period of time, usually ten semesters – a compromise demanded by the FPÖ.) The parliamentary manoeuvres by the SPÖ have helped the FPÖ gain the image of a ‘respectable’ party, and made it easier for SPÖ voters to switch to the FPÖ.

However, the FPÖ today is even further to the right than it was when in government. The SPÖ has accepted, without a word of protest, Martin Graf, a member of the far-right Burschenschaft Olympia, as the third president of parliament. The electoral shift to the right has boosted the confidence of violent neo-Nazis, 150 of whom attacked an anti-FPÖ demonstration in Salzburg with iron bars and baseball bats.

The election alliance, Linke (Left), in which CWI members played a leading role, got 2,000 votes. This was due to the highly polarised situation. When it became clear that the far right would make major gains, many who would have voted for the Linke decided to vote for the SPÖ, or the Greens. This means that the potential to build and campaign for a new political alternative on the left is much greater than this result would imply. The Communist Party, which stood independently, also lost votes. Other small parties were squeezed too.

The Linke is still an alliance of existing groups of the left and individuals who are fed up with the existing parties, and those involved in various struggles. Nonetheless, it contested the election in five of the nine regions, the first time a left list, other than the CP, has stood in regions outside Vienna.

If, and how, the Linke and the process of rebuilding the workers’ movement in Austria develop will depend on the level of class struggle. The financial crisis will have an impact on consciousness and polarise to the left as well as to the right. The FPÖ is already using pseudo anti-capitalist language, picking up on the mood against greedy bankers and capitalism. This will deepen with the economic crisis. It is vital that the left project is developed further to provide working-class people with a viable, attractive alternative to the poisonous lies of the racists.

Laura Rafetseder

Sozialistische Linkspartei (CWI Austria)

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