Truly an event worth reporting: the Communist Party won the municipal election in Austria’s second most populous city Graz.
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is a Polish journalist, expert in the field of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Deputy editor of the Polish left media platform Strike.
This article was originally published at Strajk on 2 October 2021
There is no silence before election day in Graz, the second largest city by population in Austria. Elections scheduled for Sunday? Agitation will continue on Saturday until the very last moment. In the morning at the seat of the Communist Party of Austria in Graz, Max Zirngast, a 32-year-old activist, journalist by profession, launches a map on his computer and simultaneously unfolds a paper city map. He marks points and instructs comrades where to go with the leaflets. The communists have set up, like all parties, an information desk on the prestigious Herrengasse in the town center, but it is much more important to go to the working people quarters. – Many of our potential supporters may not even know that the elections are taking place now. These were snap elections, and the campaign was neither long nor particularly dynamic. The right wing, which currently rules the town of Graz, does not care about high turnout – he explains.
How do they estimate their chances? I ask a few activists about it, but all are frugal in words. Zero bold declarations. Rarely do I meet politicians who are so reluctant to talk about polls, especially when the polls look well for them. The communists from Graz hovered around 20 percent in the two previous local elections. Before the elections scheduled for September 26, opinion polls gave them a few more points: that is, either a strong second or even first place. But they replied: we want to keep what we have.
And yet those 20 percent was the product of a long-term strategy and many years of hard work. It didn’t come from nothing.
It began at a critical moment for the European radical left – the USSR collapsing, the socialist dream, apparently, discredited. Western welfare states had been collapsing under the pressure of neoliberal ideas for some time. Austria was no exception. Providing good living conditions for the entire society stopped to be a priority. Inequalities were growing before the eyes.
– We decided then, after all, not to give up the party’s name. And neither the fight for socialism – recalls Günther Hopfgartner, a member of the party’s collective leadership, active in the party for more than 30 years, whom I meet on September 27 in Vienna. – Behind the name there is a great tradition, for instance, antifascist: in Austria only communists and a group of Catholic activists resisted Nazism. As for our ideals… After all, the fact that socialism in Eastern Europe has failed does not mean that it has no right to work anywhere and ever! We need to draw conclusions and try again.
The issue of the party name, he adds, sometimes returns in internal discussions („But so far no one has come up with a better one!”). By contrast, the anti-capitalist goals of the organization are beyond dispute.
It was also clear to the communists in Graz: the desire to replace capitalism with a fairer regime cannot be just talk. As long as capitalism is still here, it continues to generate inequality and poverty, the left’s task is to help people.
So they are dealing primarily with the fundamental issue: affordable housing.
In 1992, the communists launched a special hotline for tenants who suspect that the landlord is treating them unlawfully. When necessary, they intervene directly to defend people. They defend the evicted and provide legal advice, because poor workers often do not know what forms of support they are entitled to. When the idea of privatizing the city’s housing stock comes up, communists make people aware of how it will end. They lead to a referendum. They win: Graz does not get rid of communal flats, in time it even starts to renovate them and build new ones.
In 1998, 7.9 percent residents of Graz vote for the Communist Party of Austria. In 2008 – 11.2. They come third. Four years later, they collect 19.86 percent and lose only to the Austrian People’s Party, ahead of the Social Democrats. In 2016, they improve their result once more. 20.34 percent and second place, although clearly behind the People’s Party, which has 37 percent. But the fruits of many years of work were visible: the right wing was trying to scare voters in their campaign with a catastrophe, should a communist become the mayor of the town. They did not really succeed: Elke Kahr, wo was already the leader of the list back then, is associated in the city with housing and helping people without asking them about their political views, not with Stalin.
The day before the elections, Elke is sitting with me at the table in a party club in Graz.
Short, smiling, gesturing vigorously as she talks about what the party has achieved when it introduced its representatives within the city authorities . It was specifically her who was in charge of the housing policy department.
During these several years, from 2005 to 2017, over 1,000 new municipal flats were built. The city bought the former barracks complex to convert it into apartments. In the districts of Geidorf, St. Peter and Waltendorf there has never been any communal housing before – now they have come. Older apartments, in bad condition and without toilets, were successively renovated.
Everyone who lived in Graz was given the opportunity to apply for a council flat. It was enough to submit an application, provide your and your family’s data, and the amount of your income. The lack of Austrian citizenship was not an obstacle. It was not until 2017, when the new right-wing coalition took the housing policy department from the communists, that a change took place here: before the apartment is granted, you have to live in Graz for 5 years. Likewise, another regulation that Elke proudly speaks of was canceled: the rule that if housing expenses exceeded 1/3 of the family’s income, the city paid a surplus. From 2017, only people earning the minimum wage can benefit from the subsidies. However, in the party’s election materials I read that if the party wins the election, it will change immediately, and the Mietzuzahlung will return.
But that’s not what Elke talks about in the first place when I ask about the party’s greatest success. The most important thing, she says, is that the party has become the first address for people who need help.
– I use my contacts when a worker who cannot find a flat comes to me. I talk to the owners and convince them – says the activist.
Later, when I talk to party activists at the Herrengasse post, I will learn that councilor Elke Kahr meets several hundred people a week. Her office, in fact, does not close. You can also knock to the communists’ door when you simply don’t have any money for a flat deposit. They will help – they will simply transfer this amount from a special fund. Where do the funds come from?
– From my councilor’s salary, I retain two thousand euros. I donate the rest to this fund – explains Elke, and her party comrades will add: this is what all party activists who hold an elected position in the city council or the landtag are doing now. It turns out that most of the communists’ earnings go to those in need, because the salary of a local government official ranges between 6-7 thousand euro.
Elke Kahr admits: she has already heard that this is not politics, but charity. But she feels different. – We just help those that no one else is interested in.
Helping the weaker – although this word is not used here – is for her the very essence of being on the left.
Communists are those who do important and necessary things – this was also the image of the party for Christine Wenzl, an activist from Leoben, another city in Austria where the Austrian Communist Party means something. A tall blonde woman who came to help her comrades from Graz with last minute agitation, walks with her inseparable dog, Sara, and tells me about her beginnings in the party. There is no ideological dilemma in this story and no struggle to find one’s political identity. – In my city, the communists have always stood on the side of the workers, stood up for their rights, settled matters and were effective. And I am from a family with working class roots. My mother, a court clerk, was the first in this family to graduate from university and get higher education. She has always supported the left and when I decided to get involved politically, I knew immediately where my place was – she says.
In the past, such attitudes were simpy known as class consciousness.
Günther Hopfgartner emphasizes that the communists want to contribute a class view on the society and its problems to the general landscape of the Austrian left. – Years ago, our party believed that it was at the forefront of progress. That we were the only one who had a proper analysis of reality and all left-wing or workers’ organizations should have followed us. Today we do not think that way anymore, we are open to cooperation, and we also cooperate, for example, with the few left-minded people in the Green party or in the Social-Democratic Party of Austria. If some comrades want to be involved in, for example, identity politics, then we do not stand in their way. Nevertheless, we try to put a class perspective on these problems as well, he explains.
Max Zirngast has no doubt that intervening in the affairs of specific people and strong association of the communists with the struggle for housing was the right strategy. Voters, he explains, don’t just want to hear stories about a better world. You have to show them that you are really doing something, keeping your promises. – Effective slogans or „modern” campaigning ideas are good for bourgeois parties. We are in a different situation – he claims.
The situation also requires expanding activities to a new fields: after the last elections, the communists were deprived of the city’s housing department and entrusted with health protection. „It was a long time before the pandemic, but the rightists apparently thought it was easier to lose popularity on this post,” Max recalls. After all, the city department will not solve the problems that arise from the policy of the entire state. And here, however, the communists are with the people: they are at every protest of medical workers. Another area where the party is expanding its activities: city organization, traffic, bicycle paths. It turns out that in some point it is much more difficult than building council housing. – There is no conflict around the apartments – explains the activist. – People who move into new apartments are glad that they have been built. Those who own a flat and do not use any assistance programs are usually not interested in these matters. However, traffic turns out to be a collision of interests: if we make a bicycle path, we will take the place of the drivers. There will always be someone dissatisfied with us.
On Sunday, September 26, polling stations were open in Graz until 4 p.m. Two hours later, there were preliminary results.
The communists not only kept their 20 per cent, but they achieved over 28 and the Austrian People’s Party – less than the 26. Victory!
„I’m very surprised,” Elke Kahr honestly said in her first reaction. At that time in Vienna, the left was already celebrating the comrades’ success and Günther Hopfgartner was one of the celebrating. He did not doubt: the path of the Styrian communists should be an inspiration for the entire party. – This result gave us hope that we can do it. And it also showed that we must really be a party that deals with people’s problems again if we want to regain trust. Even if politics at the national level is governed by slightly different rules and a certain proportion of voters who have fully embraced the right-wing mindset, we will never win.
There are already a few more places like Graz, where communists or other left-wing groups have gained trust of a significant segment of te society. There is Leoben, there is Linz, where the communists will have two councilors after the September 26 elections. But nationwide… the activist searches for a polite expression for a moment to define the state of the Austrian left, finally resigns and only announces that it really needs to be built anew. – In parliament, since the Greens turned right, there is no one who I can honestly call a left-wing force. The Social-Democrats are a zombie party, he says. Regardless of past merits – such as the pre-war Viennese municipal housing program, which, by the way, saves the situation with access to housing in the capital city to this day.
The KPÖ, not a parliament party, also faced its own internal crisis for a long time. This is why the communists from Graz, when asked why a party on a national scale could not repeat their successes, replied diplomatically: – We have our way, and the headquarters in Vienna have their own.
So what has to be done? Günther quickly indicates two demands.
First, deal with the issue of nationwide access to housing. Because the problem is not only local, rents are rising everywhere and absorbing an increasing percentage of earnings, even if the situation in Vienna is still slightly better. Second, take up the topic of unemployment and a guaranteed basic income.
Several hundred thousand Austrians are currently unemployed, and the pandemic has only worsened the existing problem. The right-wing government suggests the society that they are simply lazy. Meanwhile, there are simply not enough jobs. Why not guarantee selected groups an unconditional basic income to begin with? At the beginning, it could now be obtained, for example, by people working in creative professions who, during a pandemic for a year and a half, could not earn normally. Or single parents. – We have to restore these people to society – says the politician.
He believes that if the communists prove that they really care about those whom capitalism throws overboard, the party’s place in the society will be secured. The more so because the younger generation does not associate communism with the Cold War or the gulag. For Austrian 20-year-olds and younger, who know no other world than the capitalist, it is again an idea of the struggle for equality and justice. Günther is the oldest in the collective leadership of the party that was elected in June this year. In a few years, he also plans to pass the baton to the younger generation.
Before that, however, he would like the party to become for the young again what it was many years ago for him, a lad from a working-class family from Linz, a city overshadowed by a steel mill. It was a place where he admired how the chairman recited Brecht, where they showed him literature and poetry, because in his poor house one did not read books. The place where he learned the most and developed the most; he basically dropped out of ordinary school at the age of 12, and the state did not care about his education.
He would also like international cooperation between socialists to revive.
European Union? – They don’t have any progressive agenda, as some argue. At the moment, it is a tool of the interests of the corporations and the military complex. Without joint action by anti-capitalists from different countries, we will not build any socialism. Perhaps the perspective of the German left is different, but here in Austria it is clear: no kind of „national socialism” will succeed. These have to be changes across the continent.
Here and now, the communists must discuss the terms of another cooperation. The day after the elections, Elke Kahr started coalition talks with the Greens and the Social Democrats. If a common platform can be created, she will become the new mayor of Austria’s second-largest city. Under the watchful eye of both the voters who trusted her and the right, who will not miss a single stumble. Mario Eustacchio, leader of the extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, has already announced that any left-wing rule in his city will be a disaster. „They’ll just give out money,” he said after the results were announced.
Before Elke started her negotiations, however, she opened her office as every week and listened to the people who came to her with their problems. And since they came, as every week, in large numbers, she cancelled the journalists’ briefing. Being to those that no one else cares about is more important.