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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 October 2008

Austria: Far right makes big gains - left vote squeezed

AUSTRIA'S 28 September general election saw both government parties - the Social Democrats (SP), and the People's Party (VP) - lose massively. The Social Democrats slid from 35% of the vote to under 30%, while the centre-right People's Party fell from 34% to a disastrous 26%.

Laura Rafetseder, Sozialistische Linkspartei (SLP - CWI Austria)

It was a historical low for both of them. The VP has lost nearly 800,000 votes in six years. The SP lost 234,000 votes compared to the 2006 election.

The victors in this election were on the far right. The support for the Freedom Party (FP) rose from 11% to 17.5%, and the Alliance for Austria's Future (BZ), led by J-rg Haider, who had split off from the FP in 2005, saw their vote jump from 4% to nearly 11%. This gave the far right a combined total of 1,380,000 votes (over 28%), 136,000 more than their previous high in 1999, when their result sparked a large anti-FP protest movement.

The election result is a definite protest vote. Many people were angry with the grand coalition government and many former SP and People's Party voters stayed at home. The only party that more or less stood still were the Greens who, with 510,000 votes, lost only 10,000 compared with two years ago.

In their election campaigns, all parties used populist language, presenting themselves as socially progressive, to adapt to the prevailing mood, which was dominated by concerns about inflation and the cost of living. There is increasing fear of an uncertain future, with jobs at risk and living costs rising.

Far right campaign

The FP, the BZ, and the People's Party were rivalling each other on who was the most racist, and hardest on asylum seekers, trying to cash in on the social situation. The vote for the FP, in most cases, was a protest vote against the government.

16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote for the first time, and seem to have voted FP in large numbers.

The FP were in a coalition government with the VP from 2000, until the Haider wing split away in 2005, to form the BZ, which remained in government until the 2006 election. While in government, the FP was co-responsible for big pension cuts in 2003, introducing tuition fees, privatisations etc, and consequently lost electoral support before returning to opposition.

Coalition of the losers?

Leader of the SP, Werner Faymann, has excluded the possibility of a coalition with the Freedom Party, but whether or not he lives up to his word remains to be seen. The SP has just accepted, without a word of protest, Martin Graf as the third president of parliament. Graf is a member of the far-right Burschenschaft Olympia.

With an economic crisis looming, the SP is now rushing to form a government, preferably with the People's Party - a potentially unstable government and a 'coalition of the losers'.

Which government will be formed, and how soon, is not at all clear. What is clear is that a new grand coalition, in combination with deepening economic crisis, will be a recipe for further growth of the far right, unless the anger of the working class can be channelled and expressed in support for the left, and unless class struggles lead to a strengthening of the workers' movement and towards the formation of a new mass workers' party.

New workers' party

On 30 August, 120 people participated in the LINKE conference and agreed an election programme and a list of candidates. One candidate was a Kurdish worker from the Glanzstoff factory, in lower Austria, where SLP and LINKE activists supported the struggle of workers against the closure of Glanzstoff. Also on the LINKE list was a former social democratic trade union activist from the state of Styria, as well as former Communist Party members and ex-Greens. In Upper Austria, contacts were made with postal workers, who supported the LINKE, and took part in campaigning on the street.

As the economic crisis begins to hit Austria, the election campaign of LINKE focused on the fight for higher wages, to counter rising prices, as well as the struggle against job cuts and workplace closures.

Another important point was the fight against racism. We organised a demonstration against the final election rally of the FP, linking the struggle against racism with the struggle against social cuts.

We also organised a rally against lay-offs, workplace closures, and for higher wages, using the campaign to raise the idea of a new workers' party amongst broader layers of working people and youth.

LINKE activists received a warm response on the streets, with people contacting us during the election campaign, asking how we were doing or offering help. We also found that a new party for working people is something that people genuinely wish for.

After the election, Ernest Kaltenegger, Chairman of the CP in Styria and a well known figure amongst workers in Styria, announced that the CP in Styria strives for a new left 'platform', in the style of Die Linke in Germany.

This is a step forward for the formation of a new left force in Austria, and it reflects that the LINKE campaign had an impact. How the LINKE and the process of rebuilding the workers' movement in Austria develops will depend on the level of class struggles and social movements.

The next step will be a LINKE conference on 18 November. The SLP proposes that the LINKE should campaign for an 8% increase, in the wage negotiations that are about to start. It will also be vital to challenge the far right in terms of winning the hearts and minds of workers - and not leaving them to the poisonous lies of the racists.

The record of Jorg Haider

ONLY DAYS after celebrating his election comeback success Austria's far-right politician, Jorg Haider, died after crashing his car at speed.

The late and unlamented (by many) right-winger came to prominence when his Freedom Party (FP) got 27% of the vote in the October 1999 general election and formed a governing coalition with the conservative People's Party.

The FP with its xenophobic ideas "against foreigners" had tapped into people's disillusionment with years of social democrat/conservative governments carrying out cuts in services, privatisation measures and attacking pensions.

In February 2000, the Youth Against Racism in Europe and others organised a 15,000-strong school strike against Haider and the right-wing government in Austria.

Haider was notorious as an apologist for Nazism, and for his frequent use of Nazi-style language. His family too has a well-known fascist past, which saw them gain immense wealth as a result of Nazi rule.

The thoughts of Jorg Haider:

On the Nazis' slave labour concentration camps: "An orderly employment policy was carried out in the Third Reich, which the government in Vienna cannot manage."

On Hitler's Waffen SS: "Men of character... who have remained loyal to their convictions even if the headwind blows in their faces."

On fostering racism: "I believe that the multicultural society is a fiction that cannot work."

Neo-Nazi attacks

THE ELECTORAL shift to the right will, and already has, boosted the confidence of violent neo-Nazis.

During the elections, 150 Nazis turned up at the FP rally in Salzburg, and attacked the left, anti-FP demonstration, with iron bars and baseball bats. Jan Rybak, CWI member, and top candidate of the LINKE (Left) alliance in Salzburg was injured during this attack.

In Vienna, neo-Nazis on the FP side tried to provoke the left's anti-FP demo, which had been organised by the LINKE and the SLP (Sozialistische LinksPartei/Socialist Left Party - CWI in Austria).

LINKE vote down in a highly polarised election contest

THE ELECTION Alliance LINKE (Left), in which CWI members played a leading role, got under 2,000 votes - less votes than the Socialist Left Party (CWI in Austria) had got in the 2006 general elections in Vienna alone.

This, though, is due to the fact that this was a highly polarised election. Days before the election 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 Social Democrats, or for the Greens, to prevent a high vote for the far right. This means that the potential number of people willing to build and campaign for a new political alternative on the left is much greater than this result would imply.

The Communist Party (CP), which insisted on standing independently of the LINKE, and did not take part in the alliance, also lost votes compared to 2006. The other small parties were squeezed as well.

Economic crisis

ECONOMIC GROWTH is projected to slow down to a mere 0.9% in 2009. It is not clear yet how hard Austrian banks will be hit by the world financial crisis. Pro-capitalist commentators are demanding that a government should be formed quickly, to be able to act if the banks need help.

In wage negotiations that are about to start, employers will try to keep wage increases low, in view of the crisis. However, the working class cannot afford wage increases below 4%, in view of high inflation.

In Austrian Airlines, which is meant to be privatised soon, a conflict, with threats of strike action, is looming around the wage negotiations.

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