|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Austrian government collapses
THE RIGHT-WING Austrian ‘Blue-Black’ coalition government collapsed on 9 September after intense quarrels inside the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), in which Jörg Haider led a coup against the FPÖ’s ‘pragmatic’ government wing. Elections have been called for 24 November, with chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, leader of the conservative ÖVP, under pressure from the ruling class to end any collaboration with the ‘unreliable’ FPÖ.
The crisis was triggered when the government used the summer’s catastrophic floods as a reason to postpone tax ‘reform’. Part of these measures would have benefited those on lower incomes, by which the FPÖ hoped to win back some of the support it has lost since joining the government in 2000. Facing the possibility of big losses in the elections originally due in 2003, and fearing being sidelined within the FPÖ leadership, Haider acted. He suddenly announced that he was no longer in favour of a government plan to buy 18 new Eurofighter jets, which was already very unpopular. He called for tax reform to go ahead.
Haider has also raised a nationalist campaign against a new Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin, and the Czech Republic in general. The FPÖ wants to veto European Union (EU) enlargement and is exploiting the fears of working people with an aggressive campaign against the ‘threat’ of immigrants from new EU states. However, enlargement is vital for the Austrian capitalists and they cannot allow the FPÖ to complicate economic relations.
Economic slowdown and growing tensions inside the EU can help fuel the growth of far-right populist and nationalist forces. The FPÖ will use the slogan ‘Austria First’ in the election. It has even raised a demand that Sozialistische Linkspartie (SLP – the Austrian section of CWI) first called for – a €1,000 minimum wage. Populist propaganda will also be used by mainstream parties in an attempt to retain support. This was seen over the fighter jets. The ÖVP postponed the deal a week after the government collapsed. Nonetheless, while elements of right-wing populism will be more openly expressed, the bourgeoisie will be wary of fully involving such forces in government.
The FPÖ’s internal clashes quickly hit its popularity. Opinion polls currently show the FPÖ at 12-14% compared to 27% in 1999. Haider’s confrontation with the government developed a momentum he could not control. Susanne Riess-Passer, the FPÖ’s official leader and also government vice-chancellor, resigned along with her team. Her ‘pragmatic liberal’ wing of the FPÖ is stronger than in 1986, when Haider first seized control in a coup by the far-right ‘national German’ wing. Haider has retreated once again from attempting to become FPÖ leader and there are rumours that he may even leave politics.
For the first time ever there is open criticism of the ‘führer’ within the party. The bosses’ organisation supporting the FPÖ denounced the Haider wing as a ‘force of destruction’. It is not certain, however, that Haider will leave the scene, and the conditions that precipitated his rise remain so other far-right populists could emerge even if he is indeed finished. Fifty-eight per cent of the population think that Haider will make a comeback.
An emergency FPÖ conference saw Mathias Reichhold (infrastructure minister and Haider’s former lapdog) elected as the new party leader, with 92% of the vote. But this brought no definite solution to the internal conflict. The two main wings are still present in the leadership. There is a variety of scenarios, including the formation of a new, more far-right populist party led by Haider and/or the ‘national-German’ bloc led by Edmund Stadler. This could be based on international collaboration with forces like the Vlaams Blok in Belgium.
For the Carinthian group around Haider, ‘foreigners’ will be the main election issue, in an attempt to win back the classical far-right supporters and those sections of the working class disillusioned by the policies of the Blue-Black government. Haider and other far-right populists have to convince them that a break with the ‘careerists’ and ‘pragmatists’ has taken place. On this basis – especially if the workers’ movement fails to build a socialist alternative – there is the danger of the emergence of a neo-fascist formation. The first tentative steps have been taken with the setting up of Bürgerwehr, a paramilitary force established by the FPÖ in Graz, Austria’s second city, although this has not been successful so far.
The SLP predicted when the Blue-Black coalition came to power that it would be potentially unstable. This instability was part of the risk the bourgeoisie took with its turn away from the ‘grand coalition’ between ÖVP and the social democratic SPÖ, to the Blue-Black ‘experiment’. The instability did not stem only from tensions within the coalition but, more fundamentally, from the opposition the FPÖ provoked in society, as well as growing disappointment amongst the FPÖ voters.
In the early stages there was the possibility that the government could have been broken by the mass movements against it. Its formation in February 2000 was met with impressive demos which reached a high point of 300,000 people. In 2001 the ÖGB trade union federation was pressured into mobilising a 50,000-strong protest against attacks on social security provision, and a series of strike actions took place this year. University staff went on a half-day strike, and teachers in Vorarlberg, Western Austria, set up an independent union after being sold out by their leadership. They held a one-day strike in May. Soon after, postal workers and bus drivers went on strike against privatisation. However, the ÖGB leaders directly intervened to stop this struggle. If the ÖGB had gone on the offensive, the Blue-Black coalition could have fallen earlier and, more importantly, with the workers’ movement better placed to defend its interests.
The most important feature of the turn in Austrian politics in 1999/2000 was that the capitalist class wanted a more reliable vehicle for pushing through its agenda more quickly. It was trade union opposition to planned attacks that led to the collapse of the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition after the 1999 election. It was then up to the new ÖVP-FPÖ government to continue with the cuts, privatisation and racist policies of the SPÖ-ÖVP coalitions of the 1980s and 1990s, but without the involvement of the so-called ‘social partners’ – the unions and the Workers’ Chamber (a constitutional body representing workers’ interests).
The government took the first steps towards a general attack on the unions and, in doing so, provoked the beginnings of a new radicalisation. Last year, an ÖGB referendum of union members saw 88% vote in favour of taking ‘fighting measures’ against government attacks. Just after the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition collapsed, the metalworkers’ leader, Hans Nürnberger, warned of wage strikes. Post, rail and the civil service workers have also threatened action if satisfactory wage deals are not reached. At the same time, the top union leaders are still in regular backroom discussions with the bosses and ministers. However, there is no basis for a new stable period of ‘social partnership’. The divisions within the unions – and between them and the SPÖ – are widening. Deals with the ÖGB leaders do not necessarily extend to all unions as they did in the past.
The SPÖ is trying to present itself as the anti-FPÖ party and large numbers of people are prepared to vote for it, as a ‘lesser evil’, to stop the FPÖ. The Green party is showing around 13% in opinion polls, nearly doubling its support. The election success of the German Greens could further boost them on 24 November.
It is understandable that many workers and youth will want to stop the FPÖ, especially as it could move further to the right. Nonetheless, it was the SPÖ’s policies when in power which paved the way for the FPÖ becoming the second-biggest party in 1999. And its inability to put forward a viable alternative helped stabilise the potentially unstable ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. More recently, the SPÖ opposed the teachers’ strike in Vorarlberg and SPÖ regional governors have implemented austerity budgets.
Very few people will vote for the SPÖ with any enthusiasm and even if it and the Greens distance themselves from some of their former policies this will not mean a turn to the left. Sozialistische Linkspartie (SLP) plans to stand in Vienna, calling for people to become active in building a socialist alternative. There may well be a tactical vote to prevent a second Blue-Black government. But any coalition of the existing parliamentary parties will continue with neo-liberal policies. The most politically conscious workers and youth will realise that even their most limited hopes will not be fulfilled and will be more open to the ideas of the SLP.
Franz Breier jun,
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