Austria after the elections, between an astute Right and a naive Left
Agnes Tuna - 04/11/2017
It has only been four times in the past 72 years, after the end of World War II, that the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) was ousted from the first rank by another political party. That alone is sufficient for acknowledging that October 2017 parliamentary elections in Austria bear significant importance. But this record, just four times in 72 years, becomes secondary when at the same time a right-wing populist party, such as the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), with its distinct understanding of Austrian history that embraces the nationalism of the past German Reich in its party ideology, gains so many votes to be able to battle over the second rank with the party that had been appointing the Austrian chancellor during decades.
Yet, after all: Sebastian Kurz won those landmark elections. But this simple sentence does not really grasp the depth of what has happened in the past few months in Austria.
Emotionalizing and Culturalizing Social Issues, a Europe-wide Pattern
Sebastian Kurz is 31 years old, and in the last six years a member of the Austrian government, first as Secretary of State for Integration Affairs, and since 2013 as Foreign Minister. The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP – Christian democratic, conservative) did not only replace with 31,6% of the votes (+7,6%) the Social Democrats (26,9%, +0,1%) at the top. In fact, Sebastian Kurz managed to revitalize a fading away ÖVP-party which had lost one election after the other for the past years. ÖVP increased its vote share from around 20% to more than 31% almost in a solo-run of Sebastian Kurz himself within few months. He was supported by a handful of his selected young comrades, who can be all described as extremely ambitious highflyers. He succeeded in revitalizing his old party although his main opponent, Chancellor Christian Kern from the Social Democrats, easily equals him with regards to intellectual capacities as well as to media-compatible popstar image.
The parliamentary elections of Austria in 2017 have seen two winners – the conservative party ÖVP and the right-wing FPÖ – and two losers – the Social Democrats SPÖ and the Green Party, which for the first time after 31 years has not succeeded in passing the 4% threshold required to access the Austrian parliament. This huge mobility of Austrian voters symbolizes a victory of democracy, whereby the strength gained by a Western Europe’s right-wing populist party is to be labeled as an alarm signal, rather than a defeat of democracy. The will expressed by the Austrian electorate points in fact at the country’s peripherality, not only with respect to its geographical location between Western and Eastern Europe, but also with regards to its cultural and socio-historical axis.
Throughout Europe, when people were asked about their reasons for voting in favour of Brexit or Donald Trump, they used to reply with an innocent word, “change”, and another not at all innocent word, “immigrants”. This was also the case for the Austrian parliamentary elections: right-wing FPÖ got elected because of their restrictive asylum policies, and the conservative ÖVP because of Sebastian Kurz’s rhetoric of illusive change and migration control. ÖVP under chairman Sebastian Kurz has copy-pasted the same right-wing populist patterns that FPÖ has used during the last 25 years, namely by reinterpreting social issues into cultural or ethnic conflicts. He has addressed the electorate’s emotions and in doing so he did not pay attention to facts, content and concrete solutions. Or, like an Austrian analyst put it in a nutshell: Kurz did not interpret the mood of the Austrians, he created that mood.
Until a few years before, Austrian political commentators would have concluded that in such a conflict, one should oppose to fears and emotions by looking for answers based on facts. But after the 2015 refugee crisis, we have certainly learnt one lesson: you cannot set aside people’s emotions, even when they are frantic and irrational. Ignoring these emotions was a mistake, as it turned out for the Left political spectrum of Austria. Especially the Greens had to bear the brunt of this misinterpretation of Austrian voters’ emotions, and got kicked out of the parliament.
Why did the Left fail?
The Austrian Left spectrum shares part of the blame in creating this situation. For years, the Social Democrats ignored political factual issues in favor of safeguarding their existing power structures and positions in the country, often by using in an opportunistic way the Austrian low-quality yellow press which now, what an irony of fate, has become the number one supporter of Right and conservative populist politics in Austria. In addition to that, it is surprising how little the Left masters the various social media. Facebook and Twitter in Austria are almost exclusively dominated by Kurz and Strache. Last but not least, the Greens are not offering solutions to conflicting issues, such as Islamism versus Feminism, uncontrolled immigration versus rule of law, climate protection versus lifestyle, security in times of terror versus police state.
Instead of practicing the required humanitarian engagement during the 2015 refugee crisis, when thousands of refugees flew into Austria from Hungary, Austrian Leftists were only able to express moral maximalism. Real political challenges about how to support refugees coming to Austria in a meaningful way, how to make them fit for a job here, or how in general Europe should approach the challenge of migration from Africa to Europe, all these important topics were not addressed by the Left. Instead, the Left exposed its nakedness in the media through party disputes around posts and rankings for future political jobs.
About the near future
How will Austria be governed in the future? At this stage, everyone reckons with a coalition between Sebastian Kurz’ ÖVP and the right-wing FPÖ led by Heinz-Christian Strache. ÖVP and FPÖ have together more than 58% of the votes, this is the highest score ever for the Right block since 1945. Together with the neoliberal minor party NEOS (5%), which has already declared its readiness to offer a two-thirds majority to this coalition, the new government is theoretically able to introduce constitutional laws in the Austrian parliament. Currently, constitutional reforms are in fact already evoked on questions such as surveillance or a ceiling of the State’s debts. ÖVP and FPÖ party programmes do not only overlap on asylum and migration, but also on economic and social affairs, e.g. reduction of the needs-based minimum income.
Serious concerns arise with the prospects of staff being available at the FPÖ for political positions. There are almost none qualified for a ministerial position. Already in 2000, under chairman Jörg Haider, FPÖ failed during their participation in a government with ÖVP because of the disastrous profile of its political staff. Austrian courts are still busy with cases of corruption from that time. Moreover, the close and institutional ties of FPÖ to extreme right-wing parties in Europe are intolerable. Starting with Marine Le Pen going over to Geert Wilders, various Russian and Chechen nationalists, Hungarian radical rightists, up to an official visit of FPÖ-chairman Heinz-Christian Strache and his last presidential candidate Norbert Hofer to Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony – all of that describes what the political references of this party are. In his youth, FPÖ-chairman Strache was part of a Neo-Nazi group, even if today he keeps dissociating himself from this “juvenile sin”. Today, there are still FPÖ-party functionaries regularly expressing themselves through anti-Semitic or Nazi-inspired connotations.
What should the Austrian Left do?
In Austria, the Left requires proper self-examination and self-healing. We have seen during those Austrian elections that it does not work when the Left starts to cozy up with right-wing or populist themes. Both, the Social Democrats as well as the Greens, tried that, and subsequently generated fractures within their own parties, which in turn resulted in a loss of votes.
Leftists who are turning their noses up when talking about Austrian FPÖ- or German AfD-voters, and brand them all as Nazis, missing what’s really happening in the society, will face hard times if they don’t stop with such elitist views. Those citizens voting for the populist Right constitute the new proletariat of today, for whom it is worth to stand up for their own life conditions. It is a class of working poor, far away from themes such as ecological and healthy food, sustainable energies or critical media consumption. Their life struggles do look differently than 20 years ago. Interestingly, one will hardly find among them supporters of Leftist ideas such as the introduction of a wealth or inheritance tax. Rather the opposite happens: those citizens would support the cut of social welfare especially for immigrants, a policy that at the end will affect exactly all low income-groups in Austria. Objectively, Christian-democratic ÖVP and right-wing FPÖ represent the interests of Austria’s richest 5%. That means, there are 95% of Austrian citizens who possess less than a million euro, and nevertheless they have brought to power a constitutional majority striving for policies which might not bring an improvement of their life conditions, rather the opposite. So, there is no silent majority for Leftist ideas in the society. This is a reality check that the Left urgently needs to face. Far too long, the Left has separated social issues from racism. Social themes such as wages, house rental prices, or wealth distribution were too often treated as if they were not including a racial notion. A typical Austrian whining is not about the industrial magnate living in a penthouse without paying taxes, but against the Turkish family having access to social housing and getting the same social welfare benefits.
In response to that, the Left has only proclaimed his own antiracist moral purity. In other words, views of the kind: “We are the good, liberal-minded and well educated antiracists, and they are the bad and ignorant racists”, which used to be the core of the left-liberal message as at the Austrian Green Party, are not going to be helpful to win back hearts and minds of the country’s electorate. Certainly, this is part of a more complex phenomenon which results in Left parties loosing elections all over Europe. The challenge for the Left as of now will be to develop a political antiracism that combines social demands and struggles with the constant battle against a racist division of society. What entails also the question: why so few persons concerned about racism engage with Left politics – and how they could instead become part of a new form of a class struggle. What we need is a more combative stance, not only against the well-known dangers coming from the Right, but also to win back voters who decided to follow right-wing narratives. The Left needs to win back its own hegemonic social discourse and dismiss ineffective narratives of a “we versus them”, which only results in damaging the weakest ones.
Demarcation lines for social control
Austria has reached a sad pole-position: We do not only have right-wing populism holding the flag of the Right, but we also have with Sebastian Kurz as chancellor a right-wing populism that is masquerading with a conservative-bourgeois face. Both, ÖVP and FPÖ focus on issues related to migrants, refugees and security, and in doing so they drew a new line of demarcation for social control. It is not that they have only responded to a polarizing atmosphere of fear amongst Austrians, of fear against immigrants and Muslims in particular. It is that they have intentionally created such an atmosphere. Their election victory was a triumph of their political will for power, regardless of political visions or existing realities.
The times of a post-World War grand coalition between Socialists and Conservatives in Austria are over. Both parties more or less gave up in combatting FPÖ content-wise. Austrian future will bring a neoliberal shift in economic policy, which will deepen the already existing inequalities in society. Another boost of corruption can be expected as we have seen it already in Austria in 2000 during the ÖVP-FPÖ led government. And whether Austria is going to be loyal to a traditionally implemented Western foreign policy or rather going to get closer to the Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic) and embracing the trend of rising nationalism, this will remain to be seen in the second half of 2018, when Austria will be chairing the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Parliamentary Elections in Austria between 1945 – 2017: table
(*) Agnes Tuna, who shows a clear political progressive approach in her work, has ten years of professional experience in the fields of intercultural and interreligious dialogue, Islam in Europe and the World, civil society, citizenship and participation, international relations and Cultural Studies. Currently working on her PhD in the field of Postcolonial Studies, she was previously working for the King Abdullah Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), a newly established international organization based in Vienna and founded by Austria, Saudi Arabia, Spain and the Vatican. At KAICIID, she was in charge of partnerships and international cooperation (2015-2016). Before that, Agnes contributed as associated advisor to the Islamic Religious Authority of Austria. Between 2008-2012, she has worked in the Task Force “Dialogue of Cultures” of the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, servings as well as Head of the Austrian Network of the “Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures (ALF)”.