Q:How did the coalition government come about?
Following the collapse of the coalition between the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People's Party (ÖVP) in May 2017, the People’s Party won the resulting election but were without a majority in parliament. They needed to go into coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).
For most of the Second Republic (Austria since the Second World War) there has been an informal understanding that the government should be a coalition between the SPÖ and the ÖVP as well as the Chamber of Labour and the Chamber of Economy; this move has challenged the existence of this “social partnership”.
During the election the ÖVP manoeuvred significantly to the right to address the rise of the FPÖ, particularly on immigration. The way in which Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year old leader of the ÖVP (and indeed, Christian Kern, the SPÖ leader) presented himself in the election followed the propaganda style of Emmanuel Macron in France, that of a modernising technocrat. What are the origins of the Freedom Party, and what is its relationship to fascism?
The FPÖ traces its organisational lineage to the Federation of Independents set up in the 1950s by former SS members, which sought to give political representation to former Nazis whose actions were being restricted under the denazification laws in post-fascist Austria, alongside a dominant element of national-liberalism. In the late 1980s, the party took a populist turn under leader Jörg Haider, which has led it to its far-right populism of today.
The current party leader and Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has played a very similar role within the FPÖ as French politician Marine le Pen has in National Rally (formerly known as Front national). He has deep personal links with the fascist right of the party, yet as leader has been attempting to sanitise its image.
Strache was involved in neo-Nazi youth movements and was arrested at a torch-led neo-Nazi march. However, he has also been expelling members who have made overly explicit displays of fascism, such as a councillor who did a Hitler salute.
There have always been close links between the extra-parliamentary far right and the FPÖ, with the most recent and prominent example being the defence of the Identitarian Movement (IBÖ) by senior FPÖ members including Strache.
The Identitarian movement has been a global far-right movement with its origins in the French Nouvelle Droit’s attempts to rebrand the image of fascists. It has a prominent youth element. In Austria, Identitarian activists have staged a number of occupations of pro-refugee organisations and events, including a play being performed by refugee actors where attendees have filed charges of grievous bodily harm against them.
They have also been playing an active role in the efforts by Identitarian activists across Europe to physically prevent refugee ships from crossing the Mediterranean into Italy. What has the coalition government been doing?
The government has made it more difficult for migrants and refugees to come to Austria and has made life harder for those already there.
Perhaps the principle “achievement” which Kurz boasts has been closing the border to refugees attempting to enter Austria through the Balkans, although it should be noted that this was decided at a conference of different European foreign ministers held by Kurz when he was a minister under the Social Democrat and People’s Party coalition.
They have also begun to make it more difficult for migrants to claim unemployment benefits and have ended the provisions for driver’s licences to be issued in Turkish.
As is the case across all of Europe, much of the anti-migrant sentiment in Austria has centred around Muslims, and Muslim women have taken the brunt of this. It is will soon be forbidden to wear headscarves in kindergarten, as is the case for teachers. Since the formation of the coalition women in headscarves have faced increasing harassment and violence in public, particularly on public transport.
Despite their propaganda against immigrants and claiming that they are a threat to Austrian women, the government has cut funding to feminist organisations. Not only did they cancel conventions of organisations advising and supporting migrant women, but also on women’s shelters. The government does not care about protecting women, but rather refuses to finance organisations which protect women from violence and provide support to them, whoever the perpetrator is. In our political discourse domestic violence remains a taboo subject which cannot be openly and frankly addressed, but merely projected onto migrants. Sexism runs deep in our society, and with the government’s policies everyone loses.
The welfare state has also seen cuts and there have also been more direct assaults on workers’ rights: the maximum legal working hours have been increased to twelve hours a day. At some points during its populist turn, the FPÖ has attempted to present itself as a “social homeland” party, in line with the propaganda of many far-right parties offering social democracy for “natives”.
Whilst its actions in government bring the lie to any claim that they are a party which is governing in the interests of workers, they have been able to get away with these actions through playing to and stoking anti-migrant sentiment within society.
Despite the FPÖ’s deeply anti-EU politics, they have been content to subordinate this for the most part due to ÖVP’s pro-EU stance: Sebastian Kurz became EU President in July.
Following the cue of other European far right movements, the FPÖ has attempted to shed the image of its antisemitic “past” by pivoting its support to the Israeli government and making utterly cynical attempts to tokenise Jewish people, by claiming that one of the driving reasons behind their anti-Muslim chauvinism is to protect Jewish people.
Despite this, and despite the personal friendships between a number of FPÖ and Likud senior officials, the Israeli government has refused to have an official relationship with the FPÖ. Kurz negotiated this by making sure that Strache would not be the Foreign Minister (the Foreign Minister is an FPÖ-appointee but not a party member, and recently made headlines for inviting Putin to Austria for her wedding).
Q: What has been the state of the left in Austria?
After the government legislation increasing the legal daily working hours, there was a large demonstration in Vienna, but both the trade union confederation and the Social Democrats failed to offer a political direction to the opposition.
The Social Democrats are a neoliberal party which has been unable to provide leadership in the fight against the government, as it is difficult for them to argue that they present a meaningful alternative. Many of the anti-immigration policies being carried out today have only been made possible due to reforms by the previous administration in which Kern served as Chancellor, so when the SPÖ calls the government racist it rings hollow.
All over Austria the SPÖ have adopted bourgeois policies, whether it be trying to pit native workers against migrants, restricting the liberties of homeless people in the capital city, or carrying out neoliberal economic reforms at the behest of the Austrian ruling class.
Their youth wing Socialist Youth Austria (SJÖ) is a genuinely left-wing (albeit not anti-capitalist) organisation which makes strong criticisms of the main party, and within it the Trotskyist group The Spark (a sister organisation of Socialist Appeal in Britain) have some power, particularly within Vorarlberg. However, the criticisms which come from the SJÖ are ineffective in changing the direction of the SPÖ.
Outside of the Social Democrats, the left exists in a number of different forms. Last year the youth section of the Green Party was expelled due to the conflict between the eco-capitalist politics of the main party and the more left-wing politics of the youth. They went into an electoral alliance with the Austrian Communist Party (which made an uneasy and internally fraught move from Stalinism to a form of Eurocommunism in the 1990s), which largely failed.
The RSO are involved in the Aufbruch (Departure) project, which is a coalition of social democrats, democratic socialists, revolutionary socialists, and left-populists which has sought to achieve a united front of the different left-wing organisations and forces across the country.
Despite opening with a conference of eight hundred people it has shrunk in the past two years, and the attempts to be pluralistic and horizontal have led the group to be somewhat directionless. However, there are positive turns in the organisation, with Aufbruch activists in Vienna and Salzburg organising a conference in September, despite efforts by the FPÖ in Salzburg to deny them use of a building and, with seemingly no sense of irony, condemn them as violent rabble rousers.
In addition to their work within Aufbruch, the RSO is engaged in workplace activism in hospitals across Vienna, where they produce the workplace bulletin Klartext and have organised demonstrations of hospital workers and nurses against the reforms to hospitals by the local Social Democratic city government.