The Social Democrat Party was slightly weakened but not defeated. The far-right Freedom Party won almost one third of the vote, making it the city’s second most powerful party. The left-wing alliance saw a slight improvement in its results at ward level.
The Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) was slightly weakened but not defeated; the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) won almost one third of the vote, making it the city’s second most powerful party; the Green vote continued to stagnate, which means the party looks likely to continue governing the city in coalition with the SPÖ; the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), whose platform is almost identical to that of the more recently created New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS), saw its percentage of the vote drop to below 10%; and the left-wing alliance saw a relatively slight improvement in its results at ward level (when compared to the 2010 performance of the Communist Party of Austria, KPÖ). These are the key points if we briefly examine the figures resulting from the 2015 Vienna municipal elections on 11 October.
The fact that the SPÖ is losing support to the right, and at a sustained rate, was evident before the results of the recent federal state elections held in Styria and, particularly, in Upper Austria. As many voices within the Social Democrat Party have now acknowledged, the erosion process that underlies these election losses is tied to the party’s involvement in the neoliberal ‘wrecking ball’ effect. The situation in Vienna is essentially no different to the rest of the country, but there is one crucial caveat: the power and influence of Vienna’s Social Democrats is based on a substantial and (even on a European scale) significant social legacy (hence the name ‘Red Vienna’) that maintains the party. However, it is the party itself that is contributing to the successive disintegration of this legacy, opening up space for the far-right to move in (quite literally if we look at the example of Vienna’s municipal housing).
However, there were at least two other recent political developments that led to the specific outcome we saw in the 2015 Vienna elections:
The decline of the SPÖ in Upper Austria
Firstly, there was the drama that unfolded two weeks before the Vienna elections with the federal SPÖ party suffering heavy losses in Upper Austria (the third most heavily populated of Austria’s nine federal states). The party did not shy away from expressing some hideous views, which leaned towards right-wing extremism, in light of the current refugee crisis. And on election night, the party had to face the stark realisation that currying favour with chauvinists had not only got them nowhere, it had actually accelerated their own decline whilst giving a boost to the rapidly-growing popularity of the FPÖ. (On the other hand, the left-wing alternative – in Linz the KPÖ – was rewarded with a considerable increase in votes for its uncompromising anti-racist stance; the Upper Austrian Greens also saw a similar increase).
Humanitarian initiatives in local communities
The second political development that had an impact on the outcome of the elections in the Austrian capital was the sudden mobilisation of large sections of Austrian society to offer humanitarian support to refugees, which also took place shortly before the elections in Vienna. The thousands upon thousands of voluntary helpers that turned up on motorways, along Austria’s borders and at Vienna’s train stations to offer direct assistance were at the heart of anti-racist demonstrations that grew to unimagined proportions in the immediate run-up to the elections in Vienna: 10,000 went out and marched; 150,000 attended a closing concert at Vienna’s Heldenplatz where several artists performed.
The ‘duel’ for Vienna was declared
The Social Democrat mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl, sensed he should seize upon the moment. Recognising that he was losing votes to the right, he made up for this loss by shifting his focus to the left. He made it clear very early on that there would be “no coalition with the FPÖ”, and in the days immediately before polling stations opened, the overriding message sent out by Vienna’s SPÖ was “humanity not hatred”. This line became the slogan for one of the so-called ‘duels’ (as they were dubbed by the media) between Häupl and Heinz-Christian Strache (party leader and the FPÖ’s leading candidate).
But all the fuss surrounding this SPÖ vs FPÖ ‘duel’ was nothing new to the Viennese public. The same drama has already been played out and eagerly hyped up by the media in 2010. But this time the event was not only more heavily staged, it was also taking place against the backdrop of the ascendency of far-right and right-wing populist movements which understandably terrified many, causing a state of near panic among many left-wing voters – even those from the ranks of the KPÖ – that led them to support Häupl and the SPÖ. This panic was fuelled by opinion pollsters, who were both highly-effective at shaping public opinion and providing a boost for the campaigns of both the SPÖ and the FPÖ.
Marginal success for the left-wing alliance
The alternative option to the left of the SPÖ and the Greens on the political spectrum, i.e. the ‘Wien anders – ANDAS’ (‘A different Vienna’) alliance consisting of the KPÖ, the Pirate Party, the Platform for Independents and the Real Green Group, was able to turn this situation into a slight (at municipal level) and a considerable (at ward level) gain in votes for the KPÖ (from around 10,600 to just under 12,500 votes). In addition, they were able to add two further Vienna wards to the three already held by the KPÖ. What appears to be a respectable result from an outsider’s perspective, given the external factors affecting this election, was viewed with disappointment by many of Wien anders’ activists. In my opinion, this negativity is unfounded, even if the party did not manage to reach its very ambitious goal of riding some of the momentum gained by the ‘Europa anders’ movement (during the European elections, the left-wing alliance received twice as many votes in Vienna). These two elections took place against two very different political backdrops.
The momentum is still with the right
To suggest the SPÖ has shifted to the left or to even think that the Viennese political landscape was in any way left leaning would not just be a foolish fantasy that is far from reality, it would be to deny the actual facts. As nice as it may be that Häupl, a social democrat, has remained mayor of Austria’s only city with over one million inhabitants and hasn’t been ousted by a right-wing populist, the reality is that Johann Gudenus, a far-right politician, is, according to the city’s constitution, deputy mayor. The reality is that the actual power of right-wing populists has noticeably increased in the city’s wards; that many Social Democrat representatives at ward level get on well with the FPÖ; and that even in the SPÖ of Michael Häupl, there are of course some willing to accommodate the wishes of the Austrian Freedom Party. Hans Niessl, the SPÖ governor of Burgenland, has already entered into a formal coalition with the FPÖ. From Vienna’s point of view, Burgenland is merely a stone’s throw away.
The activists at ‘Wien anders’ will have plenty of work to do in the coming years to establish their presence in Vienna’s wards. And if all the talk coming out of their ranks is anything to go by, they are certainly ready for the task. And they will have to be: duel or no duel, the SPÖ shows no sign of changing its course and taking a stand against the neoliberal mainstream.