Austria: What’s behind the historic Communist surge in Salzburg?

April 30, 2023
Communist Party of Austria
34-year-old Kay-Michael Dankl (right) led the Communist Party of Austria's state electoral campaign in Salzburg. Photo: KPÖ/Facebook

Emerging from electoral insignificance, the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) stunned many with its historic vote in the generally conservative Austrian state of Salzburg.

Running as KPÖ PLUS, Austria’s Communists obtained an unprecedented 11.7% of the vote in the April 23 state election, up from just 0.4% five years ago. The KPÖ PLUS ticket was headed by 34-year-old museum tour guide Kay-Michael Dankl and included independent candidates.

Dankl was the Greens’ national youth wing leader in 2017, when the organisation was expelled for criticising its mother party’s lack of class politics and internal democracy. Together with the KPÖ, the Young Greens formed an electoral alliance, KPÖ PLUS, and transformed itself into the Young Left, a de facto KPÖ youth organisation.

Dankl was elected KPÖ PLUS Salzburg city councillor in 2019 with 3.7% of the vote. It was in Salzburg city, Austria’s fourth-largest city, that the KPÖ saw the biggest rise in its vote — from 1.19% to 21.5%. This left them just three percentage points behind the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), with the real possibility of electing a Communist mayor in 2024.

With national polling showing the KPÖ at 7% (up from 1% at the 2019 elections), Communists could also enter Austria’s federal parliament next year for the first time since 1959.

To understand the rise and significance of the KPÖ’s vote, Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke with Christian Zeller, an ecosocialist and professor in economic geography at the University of Salzburg.

Could you start by providing some context for the result?

For the past ten years, the state of Salzburg has been governed by a conservative-liberal-green coalition, composed of the ÖVP, the Greens, NEOS [The New Austria and Liberal Forum] and another small bourgeois formation. Prior to that, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) was in government together with the conservatives for nine years. These coalitions implemented decidedly anti-social and environmentally destructive policies, while privileging the interests of the wealthy, the service industry and homeowners.

The cost of housing has become a major problem for many workers. Yet successive state governments have pursued an anti-social housing policy. Rather than build housing, government policy has been oriented towards pushing up property prices, which has benefited those who own real estate.

As a result of this, rents have risen sharply in the past years. At the same time, workers have had to deal with rising energy costs in recent months. While the [conservative-green] federal government has sought to cushion some of the impact of higher energy prices, it maintains the need to operate within “practical constraints”.

This has created considerable anger among growing parts of the population. People’s displeasure with administrations that limit themselves to “existing constraints”, with the accumulation of bogus solutions, and with the arrogance of the political caste, has risen.

It is therefore not surprising that all of the governing parties saw a significant drop in their vote. In contrast, the [radical right] Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and KPÖ made significant gains, becoming expressions of protest votes against the governing coalition parties.

What role does the SPÖ play in Salzburg?

The local SPÖ has completely degenerated and been absorbed into the system. The SPÖ is a capitalist party, albeit with ongoing links to the trade union bureaucracy but much less so to trade union members. Its election campaign had no content and some of its policies were outright reactionary. Its program was far from social democratic.

The SPÖ has been losing votes at successive state elections in Salzburg for almost two decades. After each election, the response has been to adapt even more to the idea of operating within “practical constraints”.

SPÖ electoral defeats in Salzburg are no exception: they are an expression of the crisis of orientation the party faces throughout Austria. The party bureaucracy has become so accustomed to the role of subservient co-management of the state apparatus that it is now incapable of any independent program.

Within this general disorientation, Traiskirchen mayor Andreas Babler, who is running in the SPÖ party leadership ballot underway, has become the hope of genuine social democrats in and around the party.

And the Greens?

The Greens are a typical bourgeois-liberal ruling party. It talks about climate action but never about binding measures. Along with the ÖVP, it is responsible for the anti-social and anti-ecological policies pursued in Salzburg and at the federal level. Those who want change have hardly any reason to vote for the Greens or the SPÖ.

What can you tell us about the KPÖ’s campaign and vote?

The KPÖ ran a social democratic campaign that was able to fill a gap the SPÖ has left open for a long time now. Its campaign limited itself to one key issue: affordable housing.

The KPÖ has been concentrating on the issue of housing for years in Salzburg and across Austria. But to date its campaign had only been successful in Graz [Austria’s second-largest city and a KPÖ stronghold, which elected a Communist mayor in 2021]. Elsewhere, success has been limited.

The KPÖ state election program had no less than 69 demands on the topic of housing. While it addressed other topics in rather general terms, the program had very concrete, in some cases very detailed, demands on housing. Among its demands were construction of subsidised rental housing and the public purchase of land to build subsidised housing on. None of the KPÖ’s housing demands went beyond a basic social democratic program.

On climate, the KPÖ’s demands are modest. While it talks about promoting wind turbines and solar energy “in the hands of citizens” through “a nationwide cooperative”, specific targets are missing. As to public transport its demands were also surprisingly general and, taken as a whole, fail to shift society towards non-motorised and public transport.

In other areas, from aged care and health to the economy and tourism, the KPÖ’s program expressed a desire for an expansion of welfare state regulations. There were no demands for voting rights for people without Austrian passports or on the issue of protections and basic rights for refugees.

Having said this, it is true that the election program played a peripheral role in the election campaign. In interviews, videos, on social media and in campaign material, Dankl largely limited himself to talking about affordable housing. Another major factor in Dankl’s electoral success was his eloquent discourse and his clear and modest demeanour. In contrast to conventional politicians, he appeared as a credible person. Against the boredom of the ÖVP, SPÖ and Greens, Dankl represented a breath of fresh air.

Given this, how do you read the KPÖ’s vote?

According to an analysis by The SORAS Institute, the KPÖ largely won votes from people disappointed in the SPÖ, which is no longer social democratic, and the Greens, who pursue anything but an ecological policy. But other analyses indicate the KPÖ also appealed to a large number of non-voters — a stated aim of the KPÖ’s campaign.

In general terms, the election results represent a protest vote from below against those at the top, rather than a shift to the left. The ÖVP, NEOS, SPÖ and Greens are all rightly perceived as representing the interests of those above.

While the FPÖ’s resurgence expresses a reactionary protest vote, the KPÖ’s success shows that considerable parts of society are looking for a social, solidarity-based and ecological response from below. Since neither the SPÖ nor the Greens offer the slightest hope of change, a considerable part of the electorate voted for a “new” social democratic force, the KPÖ.

Nevertheless, caution is called for. It remains the case that the social balance of forces has not shifted. Neither the trade unions nor climate or anti-racist initiatives have yet been able to achieve any measurable successes. And from an ecological and anti-racist point of view, little can be expected from the KPÖ.

Moreover, with many left-wingers inside and outside the SPÖ hoping that Babler will become an Austrian Jeremy Corbyn [the former left-wing leader of the British Labour Party], the KPÖ will have to decide if it wants to be part of this project of social democratic renewal. The programmatic differences between Babler and the KPÖ are small.

Yet the experiences of recent neo-social democratic reform projects, from Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain to Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States, have ranged from sobering to devastating. The challenge for ecosocialists is to develop organising perspectives and strategic options that go beyond neo-social democratic minimalism to building a European-wide revolutionary ecosocialist current.

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