News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Western Europe - Europe2024 Setting Ourselves Apart

The Communist Party of Austria combines concrete reforms with the fight for social transformation — and wins elections in the process


Communist Party members on the campaign trail in Vienna, Austria.
Communist Party members on the campaign trail in Vienna, Austria, 26 Maz 2024. Photo: Flickr / KPÖ

If you ask a random passer-by on the streets of Salzburg what sets the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) apart, they will probably have quite a bit to say — regardless of whether they vote for the KPÖ or not.

Georg Kurz was a coordinator of the KPÖ election campaign in Salzburg.

Sarah Pansy is a member of the Salzburg state parliament for the Communist Party of Austria.

For example, it is well-known that KPÖ representatives give away a large portion of their salaries to avoid becoming out of touch with the people, and that this money is shared with those who need it more urgently, all without any bureaucratic red tape. The average passer-by is also likely to know that the party campaigns tirelessly for affordable housing. All in all, there is a good chance that our random interviewee will conclude that the KPÖ does not take part in squabbling with other parties; they are there “for the people”.

For a party that had previously only held one of the 40 seats in the municipal parliament and was therefore inconsequential in the balance of power in Salzburg’s city government, this is quite an achievement. The KPÖ is adept at raising the concerns of the population in the local council and the media more visibly than the other parties, but it is outside of parliament that the party’s efficacy is most unmistakable. And that is precisely what sets its understanding of politics apart from that of all other parties: yes, we KPÖ members run for elections, use our speaking time in parliament, and submit motions there. But we do so knowing full well that the majorities needed for transformative policies are not organized in parliament.

If You Don’t Have a Majority, Create One

A great example of this can be found in Graz: in the 1990s, KPÖ council member Ernest Kaltenegger put forward a motion that no one should pay more than one third of their income on rent for the city-owned apartments, which had become increasingly expensive. At a time when neoliberalism and privatization were at their peak, he was of course alone: the motion was rejected by all other parties.

Had he done so as a member of any other party, this would have been the end of the story: “Too bad they didn’t want it, we had such good arguments, but unfortunately we don’t have a majority.” However, the Graz KPÖ took action, launched a major campaign and worked together with tenants to collect 17,000 signatures. The public pressure was immense, leaving the other parties no choice: the KPÖ submitted the motion again, and this time it passed unanimously. The KPÖ had effectively created its own majority in parliament.

This was confirmed at the next election in 1998: with just under 8 percent, the party almost doubled its popularity, laying the groundwork for further successful campaigns and achievements which culminated in 2021. With 28.8 percent, the KPÖ is now the strongest force in Graz. Party member Elke Kahr currently serves as mayor in the city, and she has only become more popular since taking office.

The example of the Graz comrades clearly demonstrates why the KPÖ does not completely forgo a strategic use of parliament, but our power is firmly rooted in the work we do in neighbourhoods, not in parliament.

You Can’t Make a Career in the KPÖ

We wouldn’t be the first to start out with such lofty ideals, but there is of course the risk that sooner or later, we would fall for parliamentarianism just like everyone else: after all, parliaments are set up precisely so that their members are systematically kept away from the rest of the population and their everyday problems, ensconced in luxurious buildings with every conceivable amenity, hefty salaries, chauffeur services, staff, and the like.

For this reason, the KPÖ has followed the example of the Paris Commune in creating fixed structures to avoid the parallel world of professional politics: anyone who accepts a mandate for the party, whether as a local councillor or a senior member of government, receives at most the average skilled worker’s salary, which currently stands at 2,500 euro. Anything that exceeds this amount is returned directly to the population during consultation hours, without any bureaucracy.

We are not interested in divisive cultural battles, identity politics, or symbolic gestures — rather, we are fully committed to the material improvement of collective living conditions.

In Salzburg, we were able to provide concrete help in hundreds of cases last year. That is a value in its own right. Even the KPÖ politicians who perform the social consultations as part of their everyday work for the party benefit from them: Any politician who has to confront issues such as mould in social housing, rising gas bills, and a lack of access to German language courses, rather than deal with committee agendas and lobby meetings will eventually change their political perspective. The salary deduction is a substantial proof that we keep our promises: we can implement this even the day after the election. It is apparent to everyone that we not only talk, but actually take action.

However, the consultation hours are not the only way we avoid getting too wrapped up in the machinery of government: KPÖ representatives also perform organizational functions in the party, take part in other tasks that emerge, and are constantly in contact with everyday people, not only through consultation hours but also through other party activities such as information stands, collecting signatures, and door-to-door canvassing.

Working in parliament or government is a necessary service to the party, just as cleaning its office and distributing its newspaper are necessary tasks for the party’s success. However, no position exempts the officeholder from their other duties: we in the KPÖ are dedicated to organizing social life. This primarily takes place outside of parliaments, which is why our work is not focused on parliamentary politics.

The Majority Is There, You Just Have to Organize It

As the example from Graz demonstrates, our effectiveness stems largely from the fact that we can legitimately say loud and clear that our work reflects the concerns of the majority.

We constantly receive positive feedback on our practical work in Salzburg. People appreciate it because they see the benefits. This lends us a legitimacy that extends far beyond our voter base.

That is why, in everything we do, we focus not on what is divisive, on the disagreements between different interest groups, but on the common interests of the 99 percent. We prioritize the particular interests of minorities not only because we think it’s the most effective way to concretely improve the lives of those concerned: sound social policy is often the best way not only to help disadvantaged people, and it also garners the support of the majority.

Ultimately, improving the real situation of people in neglected neighbourhoods benefits marginalized and disenfranchized minorities most. The same is true for our consultation hours and other support services. We are not interested in divisive cultural battles, identity politics, or symbolic gestures — rather, we are fully committed to the material improvement of collective living conditions.

Who Are Our People?

An effective left-wing party is a party not just for the Left, but for all wage earners. Our target audience is not the left-wing scene, but everyone who is dissatisfied with the prevailing conditions and the established parties: the disaffected, the marginalized, the disillusioned, the non-voters.

Up until now, their main option in terms of political representation has been the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). However, the motivation for voting is often not based on any adherence to moral worldviews, but rather the feeling of being taken seriously, and the identification with the marginalized. This can be achieved by positioning ourselves outside the consensus of the other parties. In this way, we build up a base of supporters who will remain loyal to the KPÖ in the long term and instead of remaining undecided in the lead-up to elections.

Without class consciousness, there is no class struggle. And without confidence in the Communist Party to represent these class interests, these struggles cannot succeed.

The KPÖ steers clear of the other progressive parties’ turf: it does not aim to redistribute votes within the left-wing camp, nor does it aspire to be a superior version of the Greens, or a more left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). These parties’ potential is limited anyway. If we aspire to build majorities, we need to cast a wider net: we go almost exclusively to the neighbourhoods and to the people which have long been forgotten by the established parties, where people either do not vote at all or vote for the right. This explains why we do not even attempt to compete with the other parties and deliberately avoid the usual political squabbles, demands for resignations, and mutual accusations — the KPÖ is concerned with the half of the city that has stopped participating in elections.

By gradually bringing them back into the fold of urban society and integrating them into our work, we exert a lasting influence on the political landscape. The KPÖ is engaged in democratizing areas of society that have turned their backs on established politics for good reasons. The party’s growing support in these areas is a cornerstone of the type of systemic change we strive for.

Pressuring the State and Organizing Society

Public interest in the KPÖ rises dramatically after every successful election. However, our focus has long extended beyond electoral results — for us, they are more of a litmus test of how far our year-round work has borne fruit. We have a broader understanding of our potential as a party: we want a society based in solidarity, so we have already begun organizing it. We do not rely on the state to sort matters out for us — we are “deinstitutionalizing” by building community structures ourselves and gradually taking on more and more state responsibilities.

Seemingly apolitical activities such as flea markets, street festivals, tenants’ meetings, tutoring sessions, waste collection, neighbourhood kitchens, book clubs, repair cafés, and German courses all have a clear goal: to bring people out of their isolation and enable them to experience community and shared interests. This is a necessary prerequisite for being able to survive amidst major conflicts. We’re not exactly living in revolutionary times — so the question is, how do we bring about real change?

Without class consciousness, there is no class struggle. And without confidence in the Communist Party to represent these class interests, these struggles cannot succeed. People who have not even experienced the possibility of improving their own living conditions will have little faith in the prospects for a liberated society. As long as our own neighbourhoods are not organized, there is no point in talking about world revolution.

When we look back on the major Communist movements of previous centuries, we tend to remember mass demonstrations and general strikes. However, we often forget that a prerequisite to all of this was the years of arduous groundwork in the pre-political sphere.

Why We Call Ourselves Communists

“It’s always the same with politicians, no matter which party” — such statements are based on real experiences of the past decades and are therefore difficult to overcome. That is, unless you call yourself a Communist Party and consciously position yourself outside the established political system.

People believe that we really want to make a difference. This is appealing to non-voters and protest voters. The more the established parties join forces and rally against us, the more they involuntarily play into our central message of being “different from the others”.

If we truly wish to make a difference, we must overcome the moral reflex of wanting to advocate every good cause in the world while simultaneously opposing every bad one.

The fear-mongering of the other parties has largely been ineffective because the KPÖ consciously defies all the stereotypes associated with evil Communists: we present ourselves as remarkably approachable, constructive, and warm, we are always smiling, and our posters consist exclusively of friendly people and positive messaging.

Beyond all strategic considerations, it is more urgent than ever to put a concrete alternative to the world’s misery back onto the agenda. The communist idea has empowered masses of workers to fight for all the improvements and rights that we take for granted today. We stand on their shoulders. Learning about the forgotten political tradition we are part of transforms our perspective on history and the world.

Building Credibility

A political party is an abstract construct and it takes a long time for people to really trust it. An individual who embodies our values for all to see exponentially improves our recognizability and is much quicker to receive the endorsements we are working towards.

The recognition and public image achieved by individuals like Kay-Michael Dankl in Salzburg or Elke Kahr in Graz have been cultivated fastidiously. This requires years of consistency. The ultimate goal, of course, is to have people to trust the KPÖ as an organization as a whole. We have already made significant progress in this regard. Nonetheless, putting certain individuals in the spotlight is a necessary starting point for this process.

Why do we focus on housing? Because two crucial factors converge in this single issue: on the one hand, the housing crisis is severe, and on the other, there is a broad public awareness of this issue and a willingness to address it with policies driven by concrete needs rather than profits: There is majority support for the notion that the market should not be left to determine housing.

On paper, all parties are in favour of affordable housing. But if people do not believe that a particular party will actually make a difference after the election, then their position is irrelevant — there is no reason to vote for them.

Making a real difference with respect to an issue which has been considered a lost cause for decades requires an uncompromising pooling of forces. Simply demanding improvements is a tempting but ineffective approach. Actually enforcing their implementation is laborious and requires tons resources. The example from Graz illustrates that years of strenuous effort are required to achieve even a minor victory. It is impossible to accomplish this if you are fighting for all the other important left-wing issues at the same time.

For this reason, if we truly wish to make a difference, we must overcome the moral reflex of wanting to advocate every good cause in the world while simultaneously opposing every bad one. Otherwise, we will end up with a clean conscience, but the real conditions would still be determined by others. We have made a conscious decision to do what successful parties do instead: focus all our energy on a central issue of our own choosing.

The Decline of the FPÖ

Despite leading in all national polls for a while and appearing untouchable, the FPÖ has failed to make headway in Salzburg. On the contrary, as was previously the case in Graz and now also in Innsbruck, the party has fallen far short of expectations, largely due to the fact that we are not doing the FPÖ the favour of antagonizing them.

We do not talk about their favourite topic: immigration. We talk about housing and work constantly on housing, campaigning non-stop on the issue, thereby forcing the other parties to address the issue, and shutting down the FPÖ’s “kick out the foreigners” rhetoric in turn.

People know they can go to the Communists with their problems and that they will be taken seriously.

Shortly before the election, the right-wing parties in Salzburg also took up what had long been established as the central election issue: housing. The FPÖ’s final mobilization consisted of life-size cardboard cut-outs of the lead candidate holding a sign. Contrary to expectations, it did not read “For more deportations” or something like that. Instead, it said: “I stand for affordable rents.”

Previously, the FPÖ (similar to the conservative ÖVP) had warned of the “leftward lurch” with large posters adorned with a hammer and sickle. This was clearly a reference to us and our core issue — the other parties define themselves in relation to us. By doing so, they only confirm our own argument: everyone is against the KPÖ, we are the alternative.

This is something we must be able to live with, and it is okay if there is always someone issuing shrill warnings against us, while at the same time gradually adopting our positions. Similarly, many have been warning against the FPÖ for decades, but this has never hampered their rise. Instead of warning against their agenda, we are now playing on our own turf.

We’re Just Getting Started

The KPÖ is giving people a sense that there is a real alternative to the established parties, someone in politics who is listening to their concerns. People know they can go to the Communists with their problems and that they will be taken seriously. We are a party that delivers what we promise before the election.

This process of building trust is already bearing tangible fruit, and our success in the municipal elections has made this visible to the outside world. The fact that the KPÖ is now part of the city government does not change the fact that we will continue to focus on what makes us strong, that we may continue to build our strength. We’re just getting started.

Translated by Diego Otero and Hunter Bolin for Gegensatz Translation Collective.