Austria: Conservatives and Greens form coalition

A new model for bourgeois governments?

by Till Ruster, SLP (CWI in Austria) Vienna

A summer night in Ibiza, a villa, vodka red bull, the alleged niece of a Russian oligarch and a hidden camera: what sounds like the setting for a James Bond movie was indeed a trap for the then Austrian Vice chancellor and long-time leader of the far-right populist “Freedom-Party (FPÖ)”. He was filmed boasting about selling public assets and contracts for the political benefit of his party. Even though the previous coalition government of the conservative and far-right parties still had significant support, according to the polls, “Ibiza-Gate” led to its speedy demise. A provisional government quickly followed, as well as early elections in the autumn.

But the right wing coalition’s agenda was still unfinished. After a decade of social democratic-conservative coalition governments, which gradually implemented austerity with the involvement of the trade union bureaucracy, many in the ruling class opted to set a more aggressive course. An escalation of the attacks, they believed, was necessary to prepare Austria for increased competition and the expected new economic crisis. The far-right (FPÖ) was an ideal partner for the conservatives (ÖVP) in this task. A law to extend the workday up to 12 hours (or 60 hours per week), an attack on the public health insurance system, tax cuts for companies and benefit cuts for the unemployed, guns and horses for the police were just some of the measures pushed through by this government. And all this was accompanied by harsh, racist laws against refugees, and particularly against Muslims.

But this was only meant to be the beginning. Many achievements gained by former generations of the working class still remain in Austria: insurance, pensions, shop steward’s rights. Much of what has been privatised in other countries still remains publicly owned. Although these advantages have been whittled away over the years, workers in Austria are still in a relatively better position than elsewhere. Ibiza-gate cut across the offensive by the ruling class’s ÖVP/FPÖ coalition and left the FPÖ in such a deep, although probably temporary crisis, that another coalition after the early elections became impossible.

The Greens reveal their true colours

So a new, strong partner for the ÖVP was needed. This is where the Green Party enters the scene. In the last elections in 2017, they failed to reach the 4% limit to enter parliament. But since then, they have increased their support, mostly due to yet another crisis in the social democratic party, but also importantly as the only ones to benefit from the huge “Fridays for Future” movement. Although their policies on the climate are not particularly bold, the fact that they had a programme, with no left alternative offering a better one and because they are seen as a party with a record on the issue they gained 13.9% in the election that took place in September 2019, their best ever result! The head of the Greens, Werner Kogler, called election day a “Sunday for Future” fuelling hopes for a more climate conscious agenda.

During the election campaign, he promised he would not join a coalition with the very right-wing conservative leader Sebastian Kurz. Kogler has, however, shown the qualities of a real bourgeois politician, as he quickly retreated from his promise and on 7th January agreed to form the first conservative-green coalition in a federal parliament in Europe. There are already many international and Austrian examples for this kind of coalition at city or regional level, in which the Greens have helped ensure the stability of traditional bourgeois governments. This coalition on a national level is a new experiment by the ruling class in its search for stable government.

The Greens have travelled far from being a party, that was once rooted in environmental protests and often seen as a left-wing, sometimes radical, force to become a reliable force for the ruling class. In Austria too, many radical lefts joined the Green Party in the 1980’s, hoping that it would be a new left formation beyond the traditional, bureaucratic structures of the social democrats and the Stalinists. Some Green MPs today and even some of the new ministers started their careers in social movements or left union formations. But all of this seems like centuries ago, if you look at the coalition agreement signed in early January.

Climate first, everything else second?

The Greens themselves have agreed in public that they are repulsed by many parts of the coalition agreement. Social media is full of activists close to the Greens declaring their opposition to the racist content in the agreement, such as an extension of the ban on wearing  hijabs and rules making it easier to imprison refugees. These are policies that would have been found in a coalition agreement with the FPÖ and were, in fact, in the previous ÖVP/FPÖ coalition agreement.

This an important feature of this new government: on key issues, it continues the policies of the former old coalition, without repealing any of the laws it introduced. In many ways, the ÖVP is able to follow the same course with the Greens as they did with the far right! And a majority of the Green Party members accept this. No controversy has broken out within the Green Party over the agreement, many argue that they have made the best deal possible by allowing the conservatives to do what they want in regards to refugees, defense and the economy, leaving the Greens to decide on climate issues and on anti-corruption, which is the other topic they consider important. There are a lot of different opinions about this within the climate-movement, but many argue that everything has to take second place to the huge job of saving the planet. So socialists and the activists of the social movements are now confronted with a fundamental question: is it reasonable to make this kind of deal?

Trading the climate for austerity will split the support there is for climate action. Yes, a majority of Austrians are convinced that huge efforts are needed to solve this crisis, support for the climate movement is strong. But at the same time, many are afraid of the changes to come, because they know that “change” carried out by the establishment parties always leaves them worse off. Just as the working class had to carry the burden of the economic crisis of 2008, they are afraid the same is going to happen with this climate crisis. If this happens, the movement will lose support. If there is to be a completion between jobs and living standards on one side and the climate on the other, we will all lose.

Socialists link the fight for social justice with that for the climate, explaining that there is a common enemy. The same capitalists that are behind the 12-hour workday and the attacks on the unemployed and migrants are also running the economy that destroys our planet. Not only is it necessary to make them pay for any actions needed to save the climate, it is absolutely necessary to change the way we organise production. We desperately need a planned economy! Many in the Climate-change movement clearly understand that for there to be any real, effective change for the climate, we have to overcome the resistance of the big companies. And there is no other party in Austria so strongly, directly, proudly and obviously connected to the capitalists as the conservative ÖVP.
What to expect
The coalition agreement that has been published by the partners is a lengthy text of 328 pages, but has few clear objectives. It mainly covers the economy, immigration, and of course climate change. The path mapped out is, in many parts, a continuation of that of the previous ÖVP/FPÖ coalition: neoliberalism for the economy plus racism to divide and rule. This includes tax cuts for big business and the rich, especially for landlords and subsidies for different branches of economy. As is typical for published coalition agreements, there is little to explain the unpopular austerity measures. Not only are the same people who have a long record of implementing austerity left in charge, but there is no explanation on how all the promised measures will be financed. They will try to make us pay for them, including their ideas for climate action whilst, in line with their “market doctrine”, companies which adopt green policies will be rewarded instead of pressurised to make further changes. The most ambitious ideas, a carbon tax to be introduced in 2022 and a cheaper ticket for public transport for the whole of Austria are likely to meet too many obstacles to be implemented in a meaningful way. The most serious climate commitment is to invest up to 2 Billion Euro in public transport, including that owned privately, which could be interpreted as a means of boosting the economic cycle with state money in the same way as was done during the last economic crisis. Even if, and this is a big “if”, all these policies are actually introduced, they are far from what is actually needed to counter carbon emissions. So even if you are willing to accept austerity for the sake of the climate, you don’t get much in exchange.

Clash of cultures?

For bourgeois commentators, this coalition is a “clash of cultures”, a compromise between two old antagonists. In actual fact, it is not. The Greens have shown that they are just a normal, typical bourgeois party when after government positions. You can meet their members on demonstrations, who are often on the left wing of the parliamentary spectrum, whilst their leading figures seem refreshingly different to the boring polit-clones of the traditional parties. They have supported single-sex marriage, marijuana legalisation, and of course environmental issues long before other parties. They are anti-racist and anti-war. But once in government, all of this is forgotten.

The Greens have no alternative to capitalism and thus no alternative to bourgeois politics. With no real base within social movements or even the working class, they have won over a section of the capitalist class, and represent their interests, which do not differ too much from those of the rest of the ruling class. Seen in this way, a coalition between different branches of the capitalist class is a natural outcome.
Actually these two parties, the Greens and the Conservatives are particularly close. The latter were formerly based in the rural areas. Agriculture is changing there, with EU-subsidies and the market turning many Austrian farmers towards “eco-friendly” ways of production. Having foreseen this, the Greens established themselves as the lobby for those farmers. Although this layer of farmers have developed interests closer to those of the Greens, they have kept many of their older, more conservative beliefs.
In addition, the liberals in the cities, who have progressive beliefs when it comes to refugees or women’s liberation, have economic interests supporting tax cuts and increased austerity against the poor. These interests are also best represented by the conservatives.
Similar developments are taking place in many western countries. With the social democrats in crisis, the Greens are stepping up as an alternative in many countries. In the context of the international crisis of bourgeois democracy, the era of government stability has come to an end. The ruling classes have had to become more flexible over who they entrust to govern, compared to the past, so it is quite probable that green parties will join similar coalitions in other countries too, as is now being considered in Germany.

Don’t let them get away with this!

The last period in Austria has seen an upswing of social movements and class-struggle, albeit  from a very low level. After years in which there were only a few large demonstrations, a series of mass-mobilisations including a huge trade union demonstration against the 12-hour workday and the return of strikes around collective bargaining have taken place. In the “Fridays for Future” movement, tens of thousands have repeatedly turned out to protest, enabling the building of structures involving hundreds of activists to organise the movement.

The former ÖVP-FPÖ government has been met with protests from Day One. Many people view the government with suspicion and it has been even easier in the unions to mobilise against it. But for many, the new Conservative and Green coalition feels like a “return to normal,” with two parties, one to the right of centre and one to the left working together based on compromise and avoiding more extreme measures in either direction. Many others, particularly in the working class are just glad the FPÖ is out of the government.

But it was not just the FPÖ pushing the aggressive agenda, but the ÖVP too. Most importantly this was because the ruling class was pressing them to do so. This aggressive agenda unfolded not just on the political arena, the collective bargaining process also suffered in this way. This was an offensive launched at all levels of society to crush the achievements of the working-class and prepare Austria for the increased competition with other economies, particularly with a new crisis coming. The ruling class is not abandoning this project, but has found a willing new partner for this in the Greens. There is no time to lose. We need to prepare for the continuation of attacks on the unions and social movements. New government, same agenda.
We need to mobilise support for the relatively militant social workers, who are in collective bargaining right now, to build a strong campaign for the International Women’s Day around offensive demands aimed at the Austrian government. We should bring the climate movement to new levels by teaming up with the unions and the workers’ movement, the only force able to really enforce radical action against the companies polluting the environment. And these movements should be brought together in a new workers’ party to build a socialist alternative.