Publikation Rassismus / Neonazismus - Staat / Demokratie - Parteien / Wahlanalysen - Europa - Mitteleuropa - Europa der Vielen Just After Twelve: The Right’s Dominance of the Public Sphere

Right-wing hegemony as the norm in Austrian politics

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Mai 2019

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Three years ago, in February 2016, we wrote on the Mosaik blog: “Suddenly everything is moving very fast. As though on a slippery slope, Europe and Austria are sliding to the right. Even in the ‘liberal centre’, the surge of racism seems to be overflowing every dam”. Today the consequences of this are crystal clear: Austria has a government so right-wing and so successful that it serves as a role model for right-wing and conservative factions throughout Europe.[1]

How Did This Happen?

Anybody who thinks that right-wing politics in Austria only dates back to the inauguration of the “black-blue coalition government in December 2017 is mistaken. To understand the present situation we have to go back to the late 1980s, when both the (belated) neoliberalization of Austria and the rise of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) under Jörg Haider began. Since then the party has almost never managed to govern alone, yet it has become the most influential party in the country and its racist views have gradually become hegemonic. In 2006, an FPÖ poster containing the slogan “Daham statt Islam”, a rhyme meaning “homeland not Islam”, caused a furore. Today anti-Muslim racism is the consensual foundation of domestic politics. Austria’s lurch to the right is not a matter of how the numbers happened to fall at a single election, but a long-term development that has taken hold of all political forces. Since the late 1980s, Austria has consistently had right-wing and conservative majorities.

But since 2016 the rightward lurch has taken on new qualities and permanently shifted the coordinates of the political system. After the wave of migration in the summer of 2015, the then-ruling coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservatives (ÖVP) committed themselves to state racism and authoritarian measures. While hundreds of thousands of people were on their way to Europe, a huge solidarity movement formed in Austria welcoming refugees and offering practical assistance. But this new solidarity lacked any kind of substantial articulation at the political level, and a political counter-reaction swiftly followed. Even today, the many people active in such solidarity initiatives have no political voice.

In Austria in 2016 and 2017, under a “red-black” government, full-body veils were banned, an upper limit for the refugee intake was introduced, the right to assembly was limited, asylum seekers were forced to attend “values courses”, and new surveillance possibilities were created thanks to a State Protection Act—to name just a few examples. The consequences of the right-wing lurch of Austria’s Social Democrats in particular were significant and far-reaching. Former party leader and then-Chancellor Christian Kern attempted to modernize the party so as to shore up its power. He committed to a conception of the state as a modern shaper of the economy that secures innovation, growth, and jobs through business-friendly policies. At the same time, on migration and asylum issues the SPÖ fell fully in line with the FPÖ. The then-SPÖ Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil planned deportations with military aircraft and during the election campaign, while Kern himself called for the creation of refugee camps in northern Africa. Politically, the SPÖ opened itself up to a possible coalition with the FPÖ. It no longer even tried to resist the right-wing hegemony, it only sought to use it to remain in power.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Kurz, then foreign minister and now chancellor, was in the wings planning a takeover of the ÖVP and the state. He and his supporters sabotaged the in any case crisis-prone grand coalition and turned the party sharply to the right. Previously, the party’s main power structures had consisted of associations in which businesses, farmers, and employees were organized. Sebastian Kurz placed himself above these and concentrated all decision-making power in his own person. In the following election campaign there was barely any difference between the programme and rhetoric of the ÖVP and those of the FPÖ. And all of this was accompanied by an Austrian media landscape drifting further and further to the right. Left-wing counter-positions are lacking even today.

Black-Blue in Power

The black-blue federal government has been in power for more than a year now. Such a coalition is nothing new in Austria. The ÖVP and FPÖ (or the BZÖ)[2]  ruled together from 2000 to 2006, introducing neoliberal measures such as the reconstruction of the pension system and widespread privatization. That period was strongly marked by corruption, with a small circle of people enriching themselves. The Buwog lawsuit is currently underway in Vienna, in which former finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser and others are on trial for bribery and embezzlements during the sell-off of public apartments, which led the republic to suffer up to one billion euros in losses. In other cases to date, a dozen politicians and advisors have received prison sentences (Metzger 2017). The FPÖ’s experiment with governing left it split and weakened—but it has since learned from its mistakes.

The current government led by Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache works differently and is much more dangerous: they share a political project. This coalition is no pragmatic alliance, as most coalitions in Austria have been. It is profoundly restructuring both the state and society, securing long-term institutional power for itself and preparing for years- or even decades-long cooperation. The ÖVP and the FPÖ are no longer political opponents; these days they make up two wings of Austrian right-wing extremism. Election eve was already symptomatic of this relationship: when projections suggested that after the ÖVP in first place, the FPÖ would come in just ahead of the Social Democrats to come in second, the ÖVP’s campaign headquarters celebrated.

Grassroots Fears

The black-blue project relies on upper- and lower-middle-class insecurities. In times of global instability, economic uncertainty and climate crisis, it is clear that a policy of “more for all” is no longer plausible. Instead Kurz and Strache convincingly claim that they will defend the Austrian way of life tooth and nail from everyone, whether from below or from outside, who wants a part of it. At the same time—according to the narrative and material core of government policy—the defence of prosperity is only possible if everyone works harder, increasing the nation’s competitiveness.

The government is restructuring the state and society extremely rapidly, and is doing so in a maximally tactical way. It is combining attacks on the social-welfare system and workers’ rights with material concessions to sections of the middle class as well as offering gifts to abhorrently racist companies. It relies on apparently technocratic measures that in reality are fundamentally restructuring the state apparatus in favour of government and capital. Shortly before last summer the government announced increases in maximum working times to 12 hours a day and 60 hours a week. A scheduled parliamentary evaluation was cancelled, not to mention any consultation with trade unions. Shortly before the vote the law’s entry into force was even rescheduled for two months earlier than planned. As this massive attack on the interests of wage earners was unpopular, the government simultaneously sought to win over high-income earners, for example with tax bonuses for families that only benefit those with a gross monthly income of more than 1700 euro. The public health insurance schemes are also being radically reformed. Previously, workers’ representatives were in the majority, but now a majority of places are held by business representatives. At the same time, the many different social security agencies are being merged under the pretence of cost-cutting. In the medium term, this will result in a lowering of standards and pave the way for privatization (Wurz 2018). This year, as part of its tax reforms, the government wants to lower taxes on corporate profits.

The black-blue government explicitly makes policies in the material interests of the richest five percent. But to date it has also succeeded in connecting with those parts of the working class who despite low incomes feel themselves represented by it in terms of nationality and skin colour. This is achieved by measures such as reducing the minimum social security benefits for people with little knowledge of German, a ban on headscarves for girls in primary school, reductions in child allowances for Eastern European citizens (mostly care workers), and the most recent recommendation by Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ): that asylum seekers deemed “dangerous” be locked up without trial. What this all makes clear is this: things may not get better, but at least the government will make things even worse for Muslims and refugees. These measures are more than a mere diversion, as their impacts on the lives of those affected are huge (Stanic 2018). A further government strategy consists in creating social problems through cutbacks and repression, which then justify the further curtailment of migrants’ rights.

Disciplined “Messaging Control”

Despite these numerous attacks the black-blue government is popular, also due to an extremely successful communications strategy. More people in the Federal Chancellery work in public relations now than ever before. Every step taken by Sebastian Kurz in public is perfectly planned down to the last millimetre and moment. The government also practices tough “message control”: the media are only fed centrally released information, and all ministers communicate only what has been agreed to beforehand. This has been facilitated through the creation of a new administrative level at the top of the ministries, the general secretaries (Nowotny 2018). They control ministry employees and ensure that the ministries act in concert. In this the governing parties have clearly defined roles: often the FPÖ is tasked with shifting the realm of what can be said, and thus of what can be done. Both parties avoid criticising each other.

Pro-Europe and Far-Right

What is the black-blue government’s approach to European politics? In the past, the FPÖ was the only Austrian party to be critical of the EU and for a long time called for a referendum on leaving the bloc. But the prospect of participating in government led it to rapidly abandon this position and the party converted to the “European peace project” during the election campaign. In late 2017 Jean-Claude Juncker was unconcerned, calling it a “pro-European government” (Ultsch 2017). Pro-European and far-right, one might say.

In fact, Kurz and his government deal with EU issues in a completely pragmatic way. The EU level is considered important only when it serves domestic interests. For example, Kurz used the Austrian EU Council Presidency in 2018 to present himself as a European Chancellor defending the European way of life from the threat of refugees and Muslims (Attac 2018). He called for the massive expansion of Frontex’s powers and resources, the setting up of detention camps outside of EU borders, and further agreements with third countries. At the same time, Kurz took the EU Commission’s side in a budget dispute with Italy and insisted on adherence to the European Fiscal Compact. This example makes the Kurz and ÖVP (and to a lesser extent FPÖ) approach to European politics clear: neoliberal economic integration—without no outlay of political capital—as well as deeper border regime and military integration. The FPÖ tends to hold back on EU issues, contenting itself with little jabs such as criticizing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s alleged intoxication in Vienna.

Meanwhile the Austrian government has become a point of reference for a whole range of right-wing and conservative parties. While the CSU praises Kurz, the AFD considers the FPÖ a role model. Friendly meetings between Strache and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini are designed to show that they want to change Europe together. But the dispute with Italy also made something else clear: although the Austrian government had formerly made efforts to form an alliance with Italy on refugee policy, now they are stabbing their friends in Rome in the back. In case of doubt, economic interests and neoliberal principles trump right-wing friendships.

Heading Into the EU Elections with Confidence

The ÖVP and FPÖ are confident heading into the EU elections. The ÖVP has a “glowing European” for its leader and is committed to competitiveness, security, and the struggle against “EU enemies”. The FPÖ will as usual act as though it is critical of the EU and present itself as the only force to openly address grievances. Both parties have thus carved up the political terrain among themselves in an ideal way.

The other parties have offered no alternatives to date. The SPÖ is primarily campaigning by attacking the FPÖ’s “hostility to the EU”, which will hardly win them any votes. In addition it is relying on its usual calls for a “social Europe”. The party seems to have learned nothing from the developments of the last few years, as the FPÖ has always been the primary beneficiary of attacks on it. Alongside the Greens, fighting for survival after being voted out of parliament at the last election, the Green spin-off party Jetzt – Liste Pilz (Now – Pilz List) is running under the name 1 Europa. This means three parties are competing with liberal and pro-European positions primarily defined in opposition to the FPÖ. The Communist KPÖ Plus, which has never entered parliament, is heading into the campaign with lead candidate Katerina Anastasiou, an activist without Austrian citizenship who has herself suffered from the country’s increasingly intense racism. She will be a crucial voice against the racist mainstream, even though conditions are extremely difficult.

The Misery of the Opposition

The strength of the Austrian government is due in part to the weakness of the opposition in both the political system and society. The parliamentary opposition is stagnant. After 30 years of continuous defeat, the Social Democrats show no awareness of the seriousness of the situation. After Christian Kern’s retirement in autumn 2018, the party appointed its first ever woman leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner. But so far Rendi-Wagner has failed to build a profile for herself and seems primarily occupied with striking a balance between the interests of the party’s right and left-liberal factions. While Hans-Peter Doskozil, spokesperson for the right faction, criticises the government for not carrying out enough deportations (WZ Online 2019), the smaller left faction is hoping to direct attention away from racism and toward the so-called social question. But this strategy completely bypasses the reality of the multi-ethnic Austrian working class. In the SPÖ, the unrealistic hope prevails that the course of things will soon return them to government. With no project of their own and no alternative to racism and neoliberalism, they simply wait for the state apparatus to be returned to them as if it were rightfully theirs.

Now as before, in Austria there is no strong political force to the left of the Social Democrats that could constitute a real alternative to the government. The only other parliamentary opposition besides the neoliberal NEOS is the already-mentioned Jetzt – Liste Pilz. Arising out of Greens co-founder Peter Pilz’s split from the party, his list has entered parliament on a mix of socio-political demands and anti-Muslim resentment (Luksik 2018). A few members are progressive experts in their fields, but beyond that they offer no perspective. Pilz himself stepped down after multiple accusations of sexual harassment, but returned a few months later after the department of public prosecution declined to open proceedings against him. The Austrian Greens by contrast, following the exclusion of their left-wing youth organisation and the Pilz schism, sank from 12.4 percent of votes to only 3.8 percent, and so were voted out of parliament. Highly indebted and without any of the media attention granted to parties sitting in parliament, they are now trying to reinvent themselves. Whether this will succeed remains unclear. Although the Greens are rightly criticised from the left for being liberal and post-political, today their humanistic voice is sorely lacking in parliament.

A Glimmer of Hope in Resistance

Left-wing and social movements in Austria have long struggles ahead of them and there can be no short-cuts in the long-term construction of multifaceted alternatives from below. To date the achievements of social resistance have been mixed (Molina and Schwarz 2019). The first major confrontations were provoked by the 12-hour day. The Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (ÖGB) took a stand against the law, bringing 100,000 people into Vienna for a spirited street demonstration. The government ignored it and the trade unions left their opposition at that, despite strong support from the populace. Instead they attempted to secure financial concessions from business in the next bargaining round. Civil society relied on the trade unions rather than developing its own initiatives.

Despite these first major defeats there are new projects that are cause for hope. In view of the central role racism plays in the black-blue programme, the self-organisation of migrants is especially important. The #Nichtmituns (#notonourwatch) initiative for example, which was sparked by racist police checks, has become an important reference point, bringing together Muslim, black, and other racialized people for collective action. Likewise activists such as those involved in Attac or the System Change not Climate Change campaign have repeatedly succeeded in using spectacular actions to disrupt Kurz’s seemingly perfect stage-management. For example, Julianna Fehlinger and other Attac activists disrupted a field day for Kurz and fans by protesting against the 12-hour day in dirndls (Stajic 2018). Even social-Christian milieus, long supportive of the ÖVP, are increasingly expressing their opposition to it openly. Catholic organisations play an important role in showing solidarity with refugees; many volunteer activists are disgusted by Kurz and his race-baiting.

But surely the most important recent development is the creation of “do! – Es ist wieder Donnerstag”. Inspired by protests against the black-blue government back in 2000, tens of thousands of people have been taking to the streets in Vienna every Thursday since last autumn. Unlike 19 years ago, when the protests had the aim of bringing down the government and rapidly waned, this time do! recognizes its minority position. Every Thursday the slogan “Now we’re together” becomes reality: those who refuse to be caught up in the lurch to the right meet and bolster one another. On Thursdays, non-male and non-majority-Austrian perspectives explicitly take centre stage, such that we stand together despite and because of our differences. In the present situation, in which many people have lost all hope, this is already a lot. One of do!’s strengths is that it is now active in various regional centres, where more and different kinds of people take to the streets than is otherwise the case. Overall the initiative is limited in what it can do, but it is presently the most effective attempt to construct a hub of solidarity, and perhaps something more will come of it.

Lisa Mittendrein is an editor at Mosaik and a member of Attac Austria. This article first appeared in LuXemburg – Gesellschaftsanalyse und linke Poltik. Translation by Marty Hiatt and Marc Hiatt.

Bibliography

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[1] Editors’ note: this article has become terribly dated following Vice-Chancellor Strache’s abrupt resignation last week. For an update on what has happened in Austrian politics in the last week, check out the interview with Lisa Mittendrein’s Mosaik colleague Benjamin Opratko in Jacobin Magazine.

[2] The Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (Alliance for the Future of Austria, BZÖ) arose from a schism in the then-governing FPÖ. After years-long conflicts over government policy, Jörg Haider and his followers left the party and continued the coalition with the ÖVP as the BZÖ. With its new leader Strache, the FPÖ rapidly recovered while the BZÖ lost all political significance following Haider’s death in 2008.