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Austria: It is high time to break with the bourgeoisie

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Many in Austria breathed a sigh of relief on December 4 when the results of the re-run Presidential election were announced. Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the openly racist and anti-immigrant Freedom Party, FPÖ, had been beaten by Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Green Party, although he stood as an Independent. In the first election, which was annulled after the FPÖ complained of irregularities, Hofer was only 30,000 votes behind Van der Bellen and the great fear was that he could overturn such a slim majority. In fact, Van der Bellen substantially increased his lead to 300,000, gaining 53.8 percent against Hofer's 46.2.

The possible first step to political domination by the FPÖ, in advance of parliamentary elections that must be held at the latest in 2018, was prevented by a broad, cross-class alliance of capitalists, top politicians, officials, intellectuals, anti-racists and progressive workers against the FPÖ. According to the SORA election day survey, 42 percent of those who voted for Van der Bellen did so primarily to stop Hofer. They may all breathe more easily, for now, but, meanwhile, the FPÖ is already preparing for the parliamentary elections in which it hopes to gain governmental office. There can be no doubt that a government that includes the FPÖ would be a real threat to all wage-earners and especially to refugees and migrants, and that will not be affected by the defeat of Hofer.

Polarisation

This, the longest election campaign in the history of the Second Republic, expressed a far-reaching polarisation of the Austrian population through the positions of two openly bourgeois candidates. The background to this was undoubtedly the arrival in Europe of large numbers of refugees fleeing from different regions of crisis and the refusal of the ruling classes of the continent to support them and provide them with adequate supplies. While the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, proclaimed a dishonest "welcome policy" (and is now enforcing deportation) the right wing parties and the bourgeois media provoked fears, prejudices and jealousy in this extraordinary situation.

State racism, which was expressed in the erection of a fence along the border with Slovenia, a cap on refugee numbers and cuts in the minimum benefits for those entitled to asylum, was tolerated or even stoked up by all sides in this election campaign. Neither the social democratic candidate, Rudolf Hundstorfer, nor the Green, Van der Bellen, could bring themselves to criticise the asylum policy of the Austrian government. The strategy of these so-called "leftists" was a calculated political adaptation to the racist policy that plays the poorest and weakest of society against each other.

Another decisive event during the election campaign was the Brexit vote in Britain. Norbert Hofer tried to sweep the FPÖ's repeated flirting with the idea of an Austrian exit from the EU under the carpet in order to present himself as a responsible statesman to the pro-European capitalist class. At the same time, he had to keep up with the sceptical mood against the EU and pose as the defender of "Austrian interests" against the EU bureaucracy. Van der Bellen went in the opposite direction. The bourgeois professor of economics did justice to his vocation and stressed the dependence of the Austrian labour market on its export industry and on the "social partnership" based on the "success" of Austrian capitalism, although that has had less and less to offer to the wage-dependent and is becoming more and more of an obstacle to the ruling class.

In the end, none of the candidates wanted to question the economic role of Austria in the EU. Hofer's federalism and Van der Bellens' centralist approach to the EU are just two alternative ways of subordinating politics to the interests of Austrian capital. For the population, the attitude towards the EU depended on whether they saw the EU as an obstacle or an opportunity for the quality of life in Austria.

Van der Bellen's victory

The big swing to Van der Bellen in the second election seems to have been largely the result of supporters of Austria's traditional conservative party, the Austrian People's Party, ÖVP, taking fright at the prospect of an FPÖ victory. This is borne out by his ability to improve his support by up to 2.5 percent in 2,053 out of 2,100 smaller towns.

The "left" supporters of Van der Bellen, however, now have to admit to themselves that this election victory was bought at the cost of joining in a political-cultural swing to the right that has meant that the ÖVP is now seen as the “centre ground” opposition to the FPÖ.

Nevertheless, there was a noticeable differentiation between the urban centres and the countryside in this election. The gender ratio is also particularly noteworthy: only about 38 percent of women voted for Hofer, among the under-29s only 31 percent, while amongst men he had the support of about 56 percent.

The elections had a politicising and polarising effect, which is reflected in the increase in the turn out to 74.2 percent. Although Van der Bellen stood as an open-bourgeois representative of the traditional political system, is anything but a principled anti-racist and defended the “fortress Europe” policy of the government, he was seen as the "lesser evil”. Hofer, by contrast, is an openly racist, right wing populist, comparable to Le Pen, who wants a change of government in order to stir up social-chauvinist resentments in the population for a general attack on migrants, muslims as well as the rights of trade unions and the working class as a whole.

The working class and the left

From a Marxist point of view, the voting pattern in the working class is particularly important. Although it is not possible to construct clear figures from the existing statistics, we can learn something from polls based on “employment status”. Among male "employees", 59 percent chose Hofer, while women in the same category voted 58 percent for Van der Bellen. If we follow the “official” divisions between blue-collar "workers", white-collar "staffers" and "public servants", the support for Hofer is 85, 40 and 34 percent, respectively. Particularly alarming is the overwhelming extent of the Hofer-votes among the so-called “blue-collar workers", mainly manual worker, who willingly chose a racist. There also seems to be a strong connection with optimism and pessimism. For instance, 73 percent of "workers" who expect a worsening of the quality of life in Austria have chosen Hofer, while amongst “optimists”, 68 percent were for Van der Bellen.

This makes it clear that increasing discontent in the working class does not automatically manifest itself in a higher and more progressive class consciousness, but can also lead to nationalism and racism, which is an indicator of further erosion of class consciousness and a swing to the right throughout the whole society.

The reason for this must be sought in the decades-long treason of social democracy and, at the same time, the inability of the forces to the left of the SPÖ to build a proletarian alternative. Thus, right-wing populists can easily appear as supposedly the only force against the establishment, although they themselves are mostly part of it, and although their policies are used to divide the working class and the poor for the benefit of the rich.

From a socialist perspective Van der Bellen could never be an alternative to Hofer. He is perceived as part of the establishment, someone who accepts and justifies the existing order and, in truth, his economic policy could mean nothing else. The FPÖ general secretary, Herbert Kickl, reinforced this by saying that this election would be “the last one the establishment could use against us”.

The concept of the "establishment" fits neatly into the right-wing populists' “critique of the system”. For them, it is not the rule of a class and the ever greater private enrichment of entrepreneurs that is the scandal, but only the current political staff. In this way, they can lump together capitalists and trade union leaders as the "establishment" that is seriously accused of preferring refugees and migrants.

We do not reject Van der Bellen simply because he is part of a diffuse "establishment", but rather because he is a representative of a certain class, the Austrian bourgeoisie, even if his background is in the Greens. He is part of the system of class collaboration, which itself is characterised by the integration of the working class through the social democrats and the trade union leadership, who are increasingly destroying its class-consciousness and fighting capacity.

A credible left alternative would have to position itself clearly and independently not only against this "establishment" but against capitalism, racism and social partnership, and would have to expose the FPÖ to the working class as nothing more than another "system party". In this election campaign, however, the forces that took this position were insignificant and imperceptible to the broad mass of people. Most Austrians who stand for social justice and solidarity with refugees were behind Van der Bellen. This applies not only to the supporters of the Greens, who reject the idea of an independent class policy, but also (not surprisingly) to the supporters of the SPÖ and the KPÖ. Support for Van der Bellen was also to be found on the more radical left, even if it was camouflaged by the argument that it was not a vote for Van der Bellen but rather one against Norbert Hofer, as was the case with Aufbruch, Sozialistische Linkspartei, Linkswende, Party der Arbeit among others.

It is true that Hofer stands for a more aggressive anti-working class and racist policy than Van der Bellen, but the question is what is worse: an FPÖ president or the lack of a policy for the workers, which is independent of the capitalist class and its politicians?

United front against the FPÖ

Today, the FPÖ stands at 35 percent in the polls. In the event of new elections this year, or the scheduled regular national elections in 2018, an overwhelming electoral victory for Strache & Co. and subsequently an FPÖ-led government threatens. Such a government would encourage the ostracism and exclusion of refugees and spread the breeding grounds for fascist forces further. It would shift the costs of the crisis onto foreign minorities, then to the unemployed and pensioners, and subsequently to the entire working class, while suppressing trade union rights and encouraging companies.

Both the ÖVP and the SPÖ are already accommodating to the FPÖ to maintain their place at the trough. A class-fighting force, which could cut the ground from the FPÖ's feet, is not in sight. It is urgent to create the basis for a new socialist workers' party. Today, this can only be realistically done by activists from the initiative “Aufbruch”, left-wing social democrats, militant trade unionists and parts of the radical left. A first step in this direction would be the organisation of these forces into an anti-racist united front campaign which could fight the attacks of the coalition government. This campaign would also have to fight the general swing to the right and the FPÖ and combine this struggle with social demands for the working class. If the advanced sections of the working class do not recognise the need for this, they will have nothing with which to counter the FPÖ and could wake up tomorrow in a right wing, racist republic.