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Issue 38, May 1999

Austrian far-right election gains

JRG HAIDER, leader of the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FP), once again made international headlines when his party won 42% of the vote in regional elections in Carinthia on March 7. Subsequently, with the support of the conservative Austrian Peoples Party (VP), he was elected by the Carinthia state parliament as the new regional Landeshauptmann (governor).

How will Haider's victory affect the political situation in Austria? And what impact will it have on the European and general elections due this year? Is it possible to stop Haider and the FP?

The FP's victory was certainly big news in the international media. But much of the analysis has been inadequate. Most put it down to the 'particular circumstances' of Carinthia/Krnten. Actually, many of the factors contributing to Haider's success are not that unique: Carinthia, the southernmost Austrian state, with a population of 700,000, is a relatively poor region in the EU with the highest unemployment rates and lowest wages in Austria. Cuts in social services and job losses in industry have hit hard in recent years and, as elsewhere in Europe, the economic and social crisis has produced a growing hatred of the 'establishment parties'.

One limited 'particular circumstance' that does exist, however, is the role played by the Social Democrats (SP) and FP in the history of this region. The SP had been the strongest party in Carintha since 1945 and governed with absolute control. The most negative political practices, typical for 'traditional' governing Austrian social democracy in the 1960s and 1970s, were taken to extremes in this state. Corruption, authoritarian leadership, and the de-politisation of the party's rank and file, combined with extreme opportunism and attacks on the left and the Slovenian minority, under the slogan of being 'the party for all German-speaking and normal people'. But the SP's hold weakened in the 1980s.

  On the other hand, Carinthia is the only Austrian region where the FP has traditionally had a mass base, with a strong vote, public representatives and developed organisations. An important role is played by other right-wing mass organisations, like the Krtner Heimatdienst and Krntner Abwehrkmpferbund (two 'traditional' right-wing organisations which have over 100,000 members and who have 'defended' for decades the 'Teutonic identity against the Slavic-Slovenian danger'). For 40 years the FP polled over 10% of the vote in the region, as opposed to the national average of approximately 4%. But, since the end of the 1980s this has risen to nearly 30% (compared to approximately 20% nation-wide).

The FP campaigned in the election on the issues of cheaper electricity prices, cheaper rents, and more money for families with children. The VP, in contrast, almost boasted about the cuts policy which had been pursued by the provincial government (in which the FP was also represented). The SP restricted itself to campaigning for the Olympic winter games to be hosted in Carinthia, with their 'critique' of the FP being reduced to the statement that 'Haider should not become governor'. The Liberals (LIF) and the Green Party stood together on a joint list, with their only 'political' point being their aim to get a seat in the regional parliament. In this situation, it was easy for the FP to present itself as the 'fundamental opposition' and as a 'powerful new party'. The SP vote fell by 4.5% to 32.9%, the VP vote by 3.1% to 20.7%, while FP rose by 8.8% to 42.1%. The LIF/Green list polled 3.9%, the Communist Party 0.4%.

  After the March election the most frequent statement in media commentary was that 'it is not possible to stop Haider becoming governor'. The SP leaders and a majority of 'liberal' intellectuals also agreed with this. And it was right in one respect: that the parties responsible for Haider's rise, the SP and VP, did not want to do anything practical to prevent it. The SP and VP still have a clear majority in the state parliament but they are not prepared to use it 'against Haider'. In fact, at the end of the 1980s, the VP made a deal with Haider and elected him Landeshauptmann for two years. The SP has also tried to do deals with him. Of all the decisions made in the state parliament in the last few years, 93% were agreed unanimously by the SP, VP and FP. This was, and is, the consensus that made Haider big and on which he can build his future political position in the region.

Nationally, Haider becoming the Landeshauptmann signals a swing to the right. Haider's demagogy - anti-immigrant policies, attacks on social security and the unemployed, etc - will gain even more potency on the national stage. The FP will also be in a stronger position as a possible partner in future coalitions, at all levels of government. After some big internal crises last year the FP is back - a warning for all those who think that the problems of right-wing extremism and populism can be overcome automatically. The FP is not a fascist party with a fascist programme; neither Carinthia, nor Austria, is about to become a fascist state. But a populist, right-wing force like the FP could play an important role in this period because the social and political crises of the system will deepen and there is no 'left factor', like a fighting trade union trend or even a strong (ex) Stalinist party.

  On the surface, the Austrian political situation looks very stable - the SP has led the government for 29 years, with a coalition between the SP and VP holding power for the last 13 years. Haider's victory, however, reflects the deep changes and dynamic developments of the last few years. Now the SP is, for the first time in a long time, in a real, open crisis.

The reaction to Haider's victory cannot be a passive 'we will see'. It is now nessesary to prepare ourselves for future attacks on the working class and populist moves under Landeshauptmann Haider. Whether Haider is brought down, or whether the FP can make further gains, depends on the degree of resistance against him.

John Evers

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