By Sally Low
VIENNA — While concern over the rise of racism and the far right in Austria is justifiably mounting, there are also encouraging signs of the potential for a progressive counteroffensive.
With 22.5%, the populist right Freedom Party more than doubled its previous vote in last October's Vienna council election. Less spectacular but also highly significant was the Green Alternative's 9%, while around 30% abstained.
"Today there is a polarisation in society", says Franz Floss, spokesperson for the Greens. "Two parties clearly opposed the government in those elections. First there was the Freedom Party, and then there was the democratic, ecological opposition — the Greens."
Although boosted by the popularity of their leading candidate, Peter Pilz, the Greens' high score can also be attributed to their clear opposition to the anti-immigrant, racist agenda that had been set by the Freedom Party. With unemployment at 6% and rising, both the Social Democrats and the People's Party have allowed the anti-immigrant debate to dominate, and, less openly, they have taken similar attitudes themselves.
Like Germany, Austria is a favourite destination for many eastern Europeans in search of a better life. According to Floss, "The Greens were the only ones to say that, since the beginning of the century, when 50% of the population were of Czech, Hungarian or some other nationality, Vienna has been enriched by its multicultural mix."
"I would not say most members of the Greens consider themselves left", explains Floss, whose membership of the Socialist Alternative group did not prevent his election as the Greens' national spokesperson. "This is a radical democratic, ecological and social party in the best sense of that tradition. I think it's the only force in Austria capable of building a progressive opposition to the right-wing shift in Austrian politics."
However, as a lesbian and a feminist, Dr Gudrun Hauer feels discrimination and unwillingness to take feminist issues seriously from many party members. Influenced by New Age ideas, which she describes as a "special kind of right, fascistic ideology", many women in the Greens oppose important feminist demands such as the right to choose. As its influence increases, the party has to face the question of how to relate to the Social Democratic Party, which is currently the senior partner in a coalition government with the traditionally conservative People's Party. There is pressure to form an anti-right coalition with the Social Democrats, says Floss, who estimates the Greens could win between 7% and 9% in the next elections. He thinks the likely decision may be to support a minority Social Democratic government if it is committed to opposing the right, but not to enter a coalition.
One major barrier to cooperation would be the Social Democrats' commitment to Austrian entry into the European Economic Community. Green Alternative opposes the EC model of economic growth because it is a model for ecological destruction based on concentration of large industries. It also rejects the EC's lack of democracy and its function as a fortress against the Third World and the poorer countries of Eastern Europe.
Another point of debate is a call by some, including Peter Pilz, for the party to orient to disaffected members of the People's Party, which, because of the rise of the far right, is in disarray. While some fear such an orientation would make the Greens more conservative, Floss does not agree. He maintains that on issues such as immigration, opposition to racism and EC membership, many of these people whom he describes as from "the traditional petty bourgeoisie" are more radical than the Greens.
Faced with debates common to Green organisations all round the world, Green Alternative appears to have maintained its commitment to grassroots democracy and open organisation. Membership is very loose, and non-members are able to vote at important meetings provided they give three weeks' notice of their intention to attend.
Despite her criticisms, Hauer sees the Green Alternative as a potentially crucial element in Austrian politics — provided it continues to build itself as a radical opposition rather than just the country's fourth parliamentary party.