Today (4 December), Austrians go to the polls again to elect their president. Earlier this year, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, was narrowly defeated by the former Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. However, the Freedom Party successfully challenged the vote in the courts, and there is now a re-run. The candidates for the Socialist Party and the conservative People’s Party, which have dominated Austrian politics since WWII, failed to reach the second round.
Nick Evans spoke to David Albrich from the revolutionary socialist group Neue Linkswende, in the lead-up to a big F*ck Hofer demonstration in Vienna on Saturday 3 December.
Nick: Can you begin by telling us about the significance of this election and what the two candidates represent?
David: The election has worldwide significance. Following Brexit and the US elections, a fascist may now become the head of the state in a western European country.
Norbert Hofer presents himself as a democrat, but he is very dangerous: he is a fascist. He is a member of far-right fascist student fraternities. He wears the blue cornflower which was a symbol of the Nazis in the 1930s in Austria. He is an awful racist, in particular against Muslims and against refugees. He is a sexist: he published a book with very backwards ideas about women and the family.
On the other hand we have the green, liberal candidate, Van der Bellen who is a supporter of the European Union and who presents himself as the candidate of the establishment. His campaign team includes former heads of big Austrian companies such as Raiffeisen and Siemens, the head of a big construction firm, former ministers and so on.
Nick: What is the social base of Hofer’s support?
David: Most of his voters feel they have been thrown out by the system. The economy is getting worse. Two thirds of voters said they are worried about the future. These are often males in the twenties and their thirties, often from rural areas.
Nick: The gender dynamics are very striking: 60% of young men voted for Hofer; 67% of young women voted for Van der Bellen. Why is this?
David: There hasn’t been a real analysis of this, but we think education plays a role. A few years ago, young men who did not succeed in school could still get a job afterwards. This is not so any more. At the same time, access to higher education for young women has got better and better. This is something as socialists which we should support. But many young men are now falling out of the system very quickly when they quit school and when they are thrown onto the labour market.
Nick: Many working class voters are turning to the Freedom Party. Trotsky argued that in 1930s Germany, the main base of the Nazis was the petty bourgeoisie rather than the workers. Is the situation in Austria different now?
David: First of all, we think it’s very worrying that a lot of working class people are moving rightwards and are voting for the Freedom Party. This is something that cannot be ignored.
However, I would argue that the base of the Freedom Party is very much petty bourgeois. When you look at the fascist fraternities, they are well educated: they are students, former students, lawyers, doctors, and so on – this is the core of the party. Their long-time voters also mainly owners of small businesses, shops, and so on.
But Trotsky also said that a charismatic leader can wider channel wider anger against the system in a time of crisis, that he can also attract working class people, who have been ignored by the trade unions, by social democracy. The problem is that in Austria there is only one Party, the Freedom Party, that is saying: when you vote for us, everything changes. All the other parties – I don’t want to talk about the social democrats and conservatives because they’re in government – but also the Green Party is saying: when you vote for us, everything will be the same – just maybe a little bit nicer.
Nick: How have attitudes to the EU played into this election?
David: In the second round of the election, three quarters of all voters opposed to the EU voted for Hofer. It is important to ask why that is. In the 1980s the Freedom Party was for entry into the EEC. They argued for entering, and the Green Party was against it. In the 1990s the Freedom Party argued that when we go into the EU this will mean more work places, better living conditions, higher wages, and so on. The vote to join [in 1995] was very close in Austria, just a little bit over 50% to enter the EU.
But by then the Freedom Party’s position had already changed. They are very flexible in their tactics, but they knew that the EU could not deliver what had been promised. And this is what we have seen over the last twenty years now as a member of the EU: wages for lowest quarter of incomes fell by 10 or 15%. So hatred of the EU is very real.
Meanwhile, the Green Party fell completely into the camp of defending the EU. In the election campaign, Van der Bellen’s main criticism of Hofer was not that he is a fascist but that he wants to leave the EU.
We were very thankful to have seen a Left Exit campaign in Britain, because there is very little critique of the neoliberal EU on the left in Austria. We have to be very clear that when we oppose the EU, our position should be to abolish all immigration controls. On the Austrian left there are some forces who, like the former Communist Party, who are giving in to racist pressures, to argue we have to move back to a kind of national sovereignty. Instead we have to argue on a very internationalist basis, if we are to build up a left Exit campaign.
Nick: A campaign by Neue Linkswende has drawn attention to Norbert Hofer wearing a blue cornflower, forcing him in recent days to distance himself from the symbol. Can you explain the significance of this symbol?
David: It may look very funny looking at the Austrian election campaign from the outside, when you see a picture of Hofer wearing the German national colours to the balls of German nationalist fraternities that were founded in the nineteenth century. These represent the so-called “third camp” in Austrian politics [anti-Catholic and Greater German nationalist], founded by the antisemite Georg von Schönerer. Hitler was first politicised by this movement, by the German nationalist movement in Austria, in Vienna. They formed the core of the Nazi party in Austria and played a very distinctive role in the Nazi machine in the concentration camps, in the fighting against partisans, and so on.
So to come to blue cornflower. It has its origins already in the third camp from von Schönerer. It was used by the Nazis in Austria from 1933 to 1938 when the Nazi party was banned by the Austrofascist regime of Dolfuss. After WWII the Nazis were banned in Austria, but they regrouped into the party which developed in the 1950s into the Freedom Party. On the day the party was founded, in 1956, its first leader Anton Reinthaller wore the blue cornflower again. De-Nazification had already been closed down by then, and they were not challenged. This came up again in the 2000s. under their current leader Heinz-Christian Strache they were wearing the blue cornflower in parliament: none of the other opposition parties or the government parties said anything about it.
Nick: How does this election fit into the wider strategy of the Freedom Party?
David: In the early years the Freedom Party had a lot of difficulty establishing itself as a respectable party. But in the 1970s there was the famous social democrat government of Bruno Kreisky. He is celebrated by the social democratic youth now. But in the 1970s he made a deal with the then leader of the Freedom Party, a former SS member, and this deal was very important for establishing the Freedom Party as part of the political system. From then on it was not thinkable of getting rid of them again. This prepared for a first coalition government in 1983.
The Freedom Party has to hide its true intentions. The fraternities are clear about what they want to do. They want to smash democracy. But the Freedom Party has to hide its intentions. But in hiding its intentions, it also attracts all kinds of political thinkers, including neoliberal thinkers. In the 1980s, the neoliberals took over the leadership of the party and went into a coalition government. The coalition government broke up three years later.
Then came the rise of Jörg Haider. He argued the party would be destroyed if it carried out cuts. He argued the time wasn’t right to be in government. Then Haider made the same mistake in the end of the 1990s: he went into a coalition government and it ended in disaster, which it took the party back years to come back from. The current leadership of the Freedom Party is quite different from the one at the beginning of the 1980s and the 1990s. Strache and the student fraternities are well aware of the mistakes they made before.
We expect that they will win the election next year as the strongest party. They may then go into talks for a coalition for weeks, for months. It is likely they will propose more and more radical steps, until the talks break down. The Freedom Party could then go into opposition as the strongest party in parliament. This would mean that all the different parties from the social democrats, the conservatives, the greens, the neoliberals would be forced into a coalition – a very unstable coalition government, while the Freedom Party could grow much much stronger.
Of course, it is possible some of the neoliberals in the Freedom Party may challenge the leadership and push to go into government, but we think this is less likely. If they do go into a coalition, we would expect neoliberal cuts. This would mean years of harsh attacks against the working class but this would also destroy the Freedom Party for a long time like it did after Haider’s victory.
Nick: In Austria, as with everywhere else, social democracy is in crisis. But is there a possibility that a figure like Corbyn or Sanders could contribute to a rejuvenation of the left within the Socialist Party?
David: When we talk about Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, we should remember they were the product of social struggles, anti-racist struggles, trade union struggles and so on. They did not come from nowhere. The social movements in Austria are very limited. The trade unions are trying to prevent struggles. Unless we see a rise in the social struggles we will not see the emergence of left alternative because this is the precondition of it. There are various organisations of the radical left and projects that could fill the space on the left, but they will have to come together with wider social struggles.
Nick: What is the strategy for opposing Hofer now, and if he wins, in the weeks and months to come?
David: We have to be absolutely clear that there needs to be a left opposition to the European Union and to neoliberal projects. This is especially important in Austria where there is a massive opposition party, a fascist party that has occupied the space of rejection of the European Union.
But for the immediate response, it is very important that we have resistance. We argue that we should be the strongest possible fight on the streets in a militant way to prevent the fascists from marching, to prevent them from having talks on television and so on. So we have to build the movement.
We have to show there is resistance. If you are at home, you are disgusted by what is happening, that a fascist may become the president; the F*ck Hofer demo gives you something you can go to. This is very important because if he wins, the resistance must go on: we have already planned the next protests. We plan to go through the universities to build emergency protests.
We have to unmask what they are. This helps us drive a wedge between the leadership of the party, the voters, and their broader base, because they have no clue what the leadership really wants. They are angry at the system. Freedom Party voters may vote out of racist reasons but they do not realise that the Freedom Party is a fascist party, because they are hiding it. By unmasking the leadership, we can separate them from their voters.