The recent provincial elections in Austria passed largely unnoticed outside the country, but the results were a significant bellwether for what lies ahead in Austrian national politics. Our Austrian correspondent AMT sends the following recap of what happened, with an analysis of what it all means.
Reality bites… The Austrian Social(ist) Democrats
These days it can’t be easy fighting injustice. The injustice of Realpolitik appears even graver in the face of elections in which the voter has decided to
kick the Socialists’ butt punish the socialist agenda of peace, love and harmony of all peoples.
Nearly two weeks ago, the first of two major Austrian provincial government election cycles took place in Styria and Burgenland. The current feckless federal government coalition is ÖVP/SPÖ, i.e. “Conservatives” and Socialists. Given the glaringly obvious incompetence in every aspect of governance not only at the federal level, but also that of the provincial governments (SPÖ/ÖVP coalition in Steiermark and Burgenland), the major, even catastrophic, losses in the polls were no surprise.
The stunning gains by FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, Austrian Freedom Party), which in Steiermark reached nearly 28% of the vote, has since wreaked havoc within the socialist party of Chancellor Werner Faymann. While a government in Styria has yet to be formed, Burgenland, with its Socialist governor Hans Niessl, already has one — a coalition between the Socialists and FPÖ. And it is this “breaking of a taboo” that might be Chancellor Faymann’s downfall. Niessl has said he clearly understands the voters’ decision to punish SPÖ and ÖVP and add 5% of the vote to FPÖ. This is the reason why he formed a coalition government with FPÖ. And all hell has broken loose ever since.
SPÖ is caught between a rock and hard place. On the one hand, the party does not want to relinquish power in any of the Austrian provinces. This is understandable. Furthermore, the party leadership has been on record for more than twenty years with the pledge that there will be no coalition with FPÖ at any level of governance. The reasons are simple: FPÖ is racist, xenophobic, sows hatred, etc., etc. And now Hans Niessl comes along and breaks this institutionalized cordon sanitaire. Before the election he explicitly polled all card-carrying members of SPÖ Burgenland about their wishes regarding FPÖ. Since the majority approved a coalition government if the election results mandate it, Niessl did what he felt the electorate wanted.
On the other hand, there are two more elections scheduled for the autumn: one in the province of Upper Austria (with potentially strong gains for FPÖ), and the possibly even most decisive and divisive election in Vienna. Vienna is the SPÖ’s cash cow. Without Vienna, there is very little money to spend on changing society to become even “more inclusive” (think: more Turkish immigrants and potential voters) and “open” (think: homosexuality). If Mayor Michael Häupl loses in Vienna and Heinz-Christian Strache wins, then there is no guarantee Austria’s political landscape will remain as it is now.
This is where Niessl comes into play: Häupl’s main strategy is his absolute differentiation from “fascist” FPÖ. No coalition under any circumstances. Never. Not with fascism and other forms of hatred. This strategy was destroyed now that reality has bitten Niessl and other SPÖ politicians.
Suffice it to say that SPÖ is now in trouble. Perhaps there is more on the way, as Styria has not started their coalition talks. But appears more and more that there is a coalition comprising ÖVP and FPÖ on the horizon.
As I said in the beginning, it is not easy being a socialist today. But then again, being an anti-fascist fighting ghosts on the streets of Vienna is also not easy. Let’s hope this fight becomes an even harder one come the autumn.