For the most “responsible” factions of the world bourgeoisie, the international upsurge of populism has created a succession of problems and obstacles, not least Brexit and the unpredictable reign of Trump in the USA. In the last few months we have seen some vigorous attempts to stem the populist tide, the most evident expression of which was during the French presidential election last April/May, when weighty international figures like Merkel and Obama, plus the French Socialist Party and others gave their unqualified backing to the pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron, widely seen as the most effective barrier to the populist, anti-EU Front National. However, the underlying social forces generating the populist tide have by no means gone away and its political expressions continue to exert a real weight in bourgeois political life. The result of the general election in Austria – coming soon after the spectacular gains made by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland in Germany - provides further confirmation that populism is much more than a political bubble and expresses a real dysfunction at the roots of capitalist society.
The rise of Sebastian Kurz
The winner of the recent general elections (Nationalratswahlen) in Austria has been acclaimed the new young shooting star of European politics: the Christian Democrat Sebastian Kurz. His “List Kurz – new ÖVP“ gained 31,49% of the votes, followed by the Social Democratic SPÖ with 26,86% and the right wing populists of the FPÖ with 25,97%. For the first time ever, an ÖVP leader won a general election against an SPÖ chancellor in office. It is also only the second time since the beginning of the chancellorship of the famous Bruno Kreisky in 1971 that the ÖVP won more votes at a general election than the SPÖ.
Sebastian Kurz has been mandated by the Austrian president Van Der Bellen to form a new government. If he succeeds, he will become Europe’s youngest head of government at the age of 31. Kurz is being compared with the new French president Emmanuel Macron, not only on account of his youthfulness, but also because he – like his French counterpart – waged a successful electoral campaign essentially around his own person and his own “charisma”.
But despite these similarities, there are also important differences between these two politicians. Whereas Macron created a kind of new political movement around himself (République En Marche), Kurz used the existing structure of the ÖVP for his electoral campaign. How he did this was very different from the way Donald Trump in the United States more or less hijacked the Republican Party for his own purposes. The once proud ÖVP, one of the two main parties of the Austrian state throughout the post-war epoch, gladly accepted being degraded to the status of electoral helping hands of its leader. They did so because Kurz successfully presented himself to them as the only hope they had not only of getting more votes than the Social Democrats, but also of avoiding being overtaken electorally by the populist FPÖ. In other words, what motivated the ÖVP was not a political strategy in the interests of the national bourgeois state (which was clearly one of the motives of Macron and his supporters), but the preservation of the particular interests, the influence and privileges of the ÖVP.
The gamble paid off. During the summer Kurz, who was the leader of the ÖVP as the junior partner in the social democratic-led coalition under the SPÖ chancellor Christian Kern, actively provoked a governmental crisis and the calling of new general elections. In fact, Kurz had prepared this coup step by step over a period beginning in the autumn of 2015 with the “refugee crisis”. Originally, the Kern government had supported the so-called “welcoming” policy of the German chancellor Angela Merkel. This was not difficult, since the role of Austria consisted mainly in waving the refugees on through from the Balkans route to Germany. All of a sudden Kurz, who obviously has a finely developed sensitivity for changes of mood within the electorate, initiated a radical reversal in the refugee policy of the Austrian government: the closing of the Austrian border, active assistance to Hungary and other states in sealing the Balkan Route. Kurz profited from his role as foreign minister in promoting this new policy, which became associated with his person. The refugee question was and is entangled under capitalism with foreign policy interests. The end of Austrian support for Merkel’s refugee policy introduced an element of confrontation into the relations of Vienna with Germany, and also with Turkey. Berlin wants Turkey, and also the North African coastal states, to play a leading role in preventing refugees from fleeing to Europe. In this way, it also hopes to gain in influence in these countries, and to counteract the influence of such powers as Russia or China there. By concentrating on closing the Balkan Route, Austria, under the impulsion of Kurz, is more determinedly pursuing its own interests on the Balkan peninsula, which are antagonistic to those of Turkey. However, on this point, the thinking of Kurz may have been somewhat short-sighted (in German: kurz-sichtig). Unlike Hungary, for example, Austria is not only a neighbour of the Balkans, it is also an Alpine country. With the closing of the Balkans route, the refugees started arriving instead from northern Africa through Italy into Austria. By closing one gap, Kurz helped to open another. In response to this, the government in Vienna announced the mobilisation of the army (there was even talk of setting tanks in motion) against half-starved and helpless men, women and children. Government circles in Rome were dismayed by this sudden deployment of the Austrian military close to its border with Italy. But even Austrian diplomats began to express consternation about Austria, in response to the refugee question, worsening relations with its two most important neighbours: Germany in the north and Italy in the south. However, there was no stopping Kurz, since his foreign policy against refugees managed to stir up a wave of nationalism among parts of the population. Among the ingredients of this nationalism were, alongside fear of refugees and Islamophobia, old anti-German and anti-Italian resentments which suddenly re-surfaced.
But above and beyond the refugee question, Kurz increasingly began to put in question the coalition government itself, condemning stagnation and blockages which he himself was partly helping to cause. In the end, all involved were relieved when the coalition was brought to an end and new elections called. Already when in government, Kurz had begun his electoral campaign, developing the rhetoric of an oppositional leader. He profited from his youth to present himself as the champion of a revolt against “the establishment” to which he belongs. His success with these ploys is all the more striking when you consider the failure of the neighbouring Bavarian CSU in Germany under Horst Seehofer, who as a member of the Grand Coalition in Berlin tried to profile itself as an opposition force in the refugee question. The CSU lost more votes at the recent German general elections than any of the other parties of the government coalition. At this level, Kurz seems to have something else in common with Macron: a highly developed ability to win and to wield political power. But whereas, for Macron, power is not only an end in itself, but a means of realising a political programme for the national capital, it is not yet at all clear what Kurz wants to achieve. Apart from the vague promise to lower taxes, and making Austria a safer and more homely place... nobody seems to know what he intends to do. Does he know himself?
The consolidation of the populist FPÖ
Alongside the “List Kurz” the main winner of this election is the right wing populist FPÖ. Under its leader Heinz-Christian Strache (a rhetorical talent) it almost attained the record score achieved by the “Freiheitlichen” (“The Free”) under the notorious Jörg Haider around a quarter of a century before. It also obtained almost as many votes as the leading party of the Austrian state for many decades, the SPÖ. Today, the FPÖ is one of the most experienced, best organised and established populist right wing parties in Europe. It succeeds in avoiding many of the mistakes of similar parties in other EU countries. For instance, it strongly criticised Madame Le Pen and her Front National in France for toying with the idea of leaving the European Union or the Euro Zone. Instead, the FPÖ calls on Austria to play a leading role in making the EU “more a Union of Fatherlands”, and in making the Euro a more “Nordic” currency (getting rid of Greece and possibly other southern members). It also condemned as ridiculous the proposal of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to have the Koran forbidden. None of this means that the positions and members of the FPÖ are any less “extremist” than in the days of Jörg Haider. But it should be recalled that Haider, before he died in a car crash, split off from the FPÖ and founded his own party, the BZÖ (now no longer in parliament). The FPÖ of today is not the same as the Haider FPÖ. It is more professional, more “market liberal”, and above all a current has disappeared which under Haider played a prominent role, the “Deutschnationalen”. This was the current which, partly out of nostalgia for the Third Reich, expressed sympathy with the idea of a “re-unification” of Austria with Germany. This option is at present anathema to the main factions of the Austrian (and also the German) bourgeoisie. In the past quarter of a century, the FPÖ has succeeded in making itself more acceptable both to the Austrian and to the European bourgeoisie. When Jörg Haider’s FPÖ formed a government with the ÖVP in 2000, there were big protest demonstrations on the streets of Austria and Europe, and the European Union imposed a kind of diplomatic semi-isolation on its Austrian member. Today the situation could hardly be more different. Not only the ÖVP, but also the SPÖ have signalled their readiness to govern with the FPÖ; there are no objections to be heard from the other European states, and so far no big protests either.
The present success of the FPÖ is another confirmation of the failure of the policy of the former ÖVP Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, who justified forming a government in 2000 with Jörg Haider with the argument that involving the populists in power would rob them of their anti-establishment nimbus. Now the FPÖ is not only as strong as ever, it has been able to maintain its image as a protest party. It has partly learnt this at the provincial and regional levels, and partly, as the FPÖ themselves say, from the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. Although Orban has been the head of the Hungarian government for seven years now, he still partly succeeds in presenting himself as an oppositional force: in opposition to “Brussels”, to “finance capital” or to the “Open Society Foundation” of his favourite enemy, the Hungarian-American hedge fund billionaire George Soros. In fact, the “anti-establishment” reputation of the likes of the FPÖ is largely based on their readiness to advocate – and implement – measures which contradict some interests of the “elite”, and even the best interests of the national capital as a whole, but which are “popular” among parts of the electorate. The “business as usual” reaction of the bourgeoisie in Austria and in the rest of Europe does not mean they now think the FPÖ have become a reliable representative of their interests. It reflects in the first instance a certain resignation in face of the inevitable. Unable to resolve the problem of “populism”, which is a product of the rotting of its own social system, the bourgeoisie has to make the best of it, limiting as much as possible its negative effects.
The present hobby horse of the FPÖ is that Austria should “join” the Visegrad-Group, an informal regroupment of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, originally formed to counter the overweight of the older western members within the European Union institutions. No more than a loose coordination, it has gained a new impetus and prominence through the present refugee crisis and through the rise of populism in Europe. Hungary and Poland already have right wing “populist” governments. The ANO of Andrej Babis (known as “the Donald Trump of the Czech Republic – in fact he is Slovakian) has just won the elections in Prague. All four countries are in the forefront in refusing refugees and Muslims into their countries. After his electoral victory, Babis declared that he is counting on Austria and Sebastian Kurz joining what he sees as an “anti-liberal” front within the EU. The “Visegrad movement”, as it is now being called, tends to give populism an additional dimension by establishing a policy of “popular provocation” as part of relations between European Union governments. But the FPÖ has another provocation up its sleeve: it wants to “re-pose” the question of South Tirol, presently a northern Italian province which many in the FPÖ want to see return to Austria. Depending on whether or not the FPÖ joins the government, and how far it intends to go on this question, this could amount to the first putting in question of a border between two members of the European Union (the rule is that the EU does not allow membership of countries which dispute borders with EU countries).
The crisis of the existing bourgeois party political system
The partisans of political stability, and not only within Austria itself, would have preferred it if the previous coalition under Christian Kern could have continued its work. The SPÖ and even the ÖVP still have the reputation of being the two most responsible and reliable state parties. Between the two of them, they would have a stable majority to form a new coalition now, this time under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz. But precisely this option appears in many ways as the most problematic. Because Kurz campaigned against the Grand Coalition, not only the votes for the FPÖ, but also those for the ÖVP appear as votes against the Grand Coalition. To ignore this would mean putting the political leadership of the country in blatant contradiction with its own democratic ideology. The dilemma of the Austrian bourgeoisie today is that the viable alternatives to a Grand Coalition both involve having the FPÖ in government.
A few weeks before the Austrian elections, the German bourgeoisie, at its general election, was able to respond to the rise of the right wing “populist” Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) by creating a new six party constellation in parliament. The option of bringing to an end the Grand Coalition (Christian and Social Democrats) in Berlin was opened up by bringing the liberal FDP back into parliament. If the establishment of a so-called Jamaika-Coalition between the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens (presently under negotiation) succeeds, the AfD in Germany will not only be kept at arm’s length from governmental responsibility, it will also be prevented (by the SPD) from being the biggest opposition party in the new Bundestag. No such precautions were taken in Austria. On the contrary. The electoral campaign there was dominated by a brutal power struggle between the SPÖ and the ÖVP to the extent that Kern and Kurz seemed completely oblivious to anything else. The contest between the two took on such scandalous proportions (blatant defamations and intrigues) that the FPÖ (normally the provocateur par excellence) was able to remain calmly on the sidelines, presenting itself on its best behaviour. Under these circumstances, nobody paid much attention to the fact that the Greens (the only established party maintaining the “refugees welcome” slogan) were being buried beneath the monstrously xenophobic electoral campaign of all three of the bigger parties, and were splitting on account of a power struggle within their ranks. The result was that the Greens are no longer represented in the new parliament. This is a party which the Austrian bourgeoisie had been trying for years to encourage as an additional governmental option, as a possible alternative to the FPÖ.
After World War I, Vienna was still one of the great centres of cultural activity and of learning in Europe. During those years, one of the main centres of intellectual life there was the regular public, one man dialogue of the most celebrated figure of Viennese culture at the time. This person was not Sigmund Freud (the father of psychoanalysis) or Robert Musil (one of the creators of the modern novel) or Arnold Schönberg (who revolutionised modern “classical” music). It was a man called Karl Kraus. Kraus was able, on the basis of an analysis of changes in the local Vienna slang, or the way headlines in the sensationalist press, or death announcements were formulated, to detect what was going on in society – and not only in Austria. He was like someone looking at a single raindrop and seeing reflected there the whole surrounding landscape in every detail. Instead of ignoring these details, instead of getting lost in them, he strove to unlock the general truths contained in the more significant specificities. It is clear that the analysis of the elections in Austria today can also help us to better understand the world political situation as a whole. Austria is one of the countries in Europe where contemporary right-wing populism developed earliest and most. Today the FPÖ is on a par with the two traditional established parties in Austria. Like the Brexiteers in Britain, the Trumpists in the United States or the Independentists in Catalonia, they are ready to do things which mobilise people behind them, even when these things sometimes contradict the interests of capital and even their own particular interests.
Perhaps the most striking specificity of Austria, which favours the development of populism there, and which at the same time represents a general tendency in contemporary capitalism, is the decline of its party political apparatus. The SPÖ and the ÖVP have had such an undisputed monopoly of party political power and privileges for over three quarter of a century now, that they are for the most part more concerned with protecting their own vested interests than with doing their job for capital. They are also increasingly discredited in the eyes of a significant part of the population. It is in relation to this question that Sebastian Kurz has put forward something like a political project of his own: “Rationalising”, “cutting down to size” the apparatus of the ÖVP. If he is serious about this, it will entail party members losing their privileges and even their jobs. This would inevitably create new conflicts, this time within the ÖVP itself. On account of its inability to put forward a perspective for society as a whole, the ruling class has enormous difficulties in renewing its party political apparatus. With the recent elections, Austria seems to be sinking deeper into the quagmire of its political crisis in the context of capitalist decomposition.