Tamara Ehs – Austria: Dawn after the empty night of socialism?

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Like so many social democratic parties in Europe the SPÖ in Austria is in crisis. Tamara Ehs asks if the party is capable of regenerating itself and what is the future of democracy in Austria.

Tamara Ehs is a political scientist and head of IG Demokratie (Austria). She developed the “Democracy Repair Café”, bringing together citizens and politicians in new conversational formats


On October 15th Austria had a snap election. It was only the second time since 1966 that the Social Democrats (SPÖ) failed to win the most votes. The big winner was Sebastian Kurz who had taken over as leader of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in May and put immigration issues at the centre of his campaign. By doing so he undermined the right-wing Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) ownership of these issues and he is now likely to form a coalition with them and become the next chancellor.[1]

The SPÖ obtained only 26.86% of the valid votes (close to its 2013 low) despite trying a little right-wing politics itself. It sought a compromise on the EU refugee allocation system, and also a loosening of job protection and maximum labour hours. Its poor result was all the more remarkable because the Greens did not make it into parliament because of intra-party squabbles, which tempted many former Green-voters to vote for the SPÖ.

In March 2017, the FPÖ’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache had tweeted about the SPÖ: “Funny how in the past they wanted to be as far away from me as possible. Now, they suddenly want to be right beside me.” And on the evening of the election he told reporters, “Sixty percent of Austrians voted for the FPÖ’s manifesto”, referring to Kurz’s copy-cat campaign. Indeed, Austria has been shifting to the right for decades with new populist challengers coming on the scene. The electoral results are testimony to the failures of the centre-left parties which are struggling to find an effective response to the radical right.[2] Shifting policies even further to the right themselves may be a successful strategy for conservative centre-right parties like the ÖVP but obviously not for the centre-left, and definitely not for those in favour of democracy in Austria.

At first glance, the SPÖ has stabilised at their all-time low of around 27 % of the votes. A deeper analysis however reveals that they actually failed to win over potential centre-left voters, not having been able to address former and new SPÖ voters, including many orphaned Green partisans. This was not only due to poor strategic decisions, bad advisors, and dirty campaigning by some Austrian tabloids that clearly preferred Sebastian Kurz. The reason is also to be found in its ideational restlessness. The SPÖ has not moved on much from its traditional third-way formula and is still shifting to the right. Party leader (and former chancellor) Christian Kern recently illustrated this dilemma by calling the SPÖ the party of the “progressive centre”.

These days the SPÖ is working on a new party manifesto to replace the current one that dates from 1998. By autumn 2018, the new manifesto will be voted on, and it is set to establish a new ideology – maybe picking up on the spirit of the 1978-manifesto.[3] This basic party guideline marked the SPÖ’s apogee, the glorious years of chancellor Bruno Kreisky. The party had an absolute majority back then and formed a one-party government from 1970 to 1983. That period is still romanticised by many social democrats because of ground-breaking reforms on women’s liberation (e.g. the right to abortion and the right to take up employment without the consent of the husband), educational opportunities (universities became free of charge) and the improvement of the workplace (reduction of working hours, protection against dismissal); moreover, the social welfare state was built and internationalism was embraced. The SPÖ of those years was a “useful party” for its traditional constituents, the blue collar workers and the lower middle class. It was useful in the sense that people felt that there was change for the better, that there was more equality, and upward social mobility was possible. The SPÖ was the party that promised to lay the basis for a decent life for all.

But soon after the 1978-manifesto was published the party elite changed track. Faced with an increasingly difficult political environment (oil crises etc.), they did not try to transform the welfare state into a true social democracy but pursued a purely defensive policy. From the mid-1980s the SPÖ began to question what, just a few years before, had been defined as the central elements of the welfare state (e.g. state control of key industries, full employment, price stability in food and housing). Since then, there has been growing ideological confusion, even a dismantling of ideology, with many disappointed people turning their backs on the party. Now the SPÖ is relying on its aging voter base, unable to build enough support among other demographic groups.

Neoliberalism has transformed society and the traditional constituencies of social democracy, in Austria as elsewhere in Europe. But even after the multiple crises following 2008 the SPÖ has failed to come up with new ideas. Today the SPÖ is quite disconnected from wider society, unable to address the social divisions that are a breeding ground for right-wing populists and authoritarian forces. The radical right is filling this vacuum with racist and anti-immigrant propaganda. While the SPÖ is avoiding open conflict with corporate power and financial capitalism the party is frustrating democracy itself; according to Jacques Rancière conflict is a basic value of democracy.[4] But maintaining the conflict has become the business of the radical right. For years the FPÖ has had the monopoly of opposition, representing the dissatisfied and the fearful who wonder what the future holds for them and their children.[5] In the presidential election held in 2016 the FPÖ won the best score in its history. Half of the electorate gave their vote to their candidate, Norbert Hofer.

With the exception of the Communists (KPÖ) in the municipality of Graz[6] there is no politically relevant leftist party in Austria to address social distress and issues such as inequality, the financial crisis and globalisation. Exit polls showed that many voters – once again – cast their ballot for the SPÖ not gladly but with reluctance, seeing the party as a last resort to stop the radical right. In that they were wrong: the SPÖ, in this election, did not rule out forming a government with the FPÖ although there is a clear party decision on the issue. Austria is living in an “empty night of socialism”.[7]

Therefore, many of the party’s traditional constituents have turned away and are now either voting for the right (ÖVP or FPÖ) or are abstaining, particularly the young, men and workers. People with a precarious socio-economic status are not voting at all. Accordingly, these people are not represented; the income-rich are overrepresented, and political inequality is even more on the rise.[8]

Sebastian Kurz is still working on forming a coalition with the FPÖ while I am writing this analysis. Very likely the SPÖ will be a party in opposition for the next five years. With their discussion on a new party manifesto ahead there is time and space to overcome the bleak years in the centre-left. It would be wise to focus on intra-party democracy, to weaken the party elites and to reconnect them with the members and beyond.[9] The party leadership has to educate the view from below.[10] Parliament and being in government is exaggerated as the only path of doing reformist politics; being part of more socially radical movements or even being the motor of it, has been neglected so far.

The decline of the centre-left has hurt democracy itself. As the SPÖ finds itself being squeezed from the right, but not from the left, there is plenty of room for it to reposition itself.


[1] For an overview of the results see Manès Weisskircher and Matthew E. Bergman, Austria’s election: Four things to know about the result, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/10/16/austrias-election-four-things-to-know-about-the-result/

[2] Cf. Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy (eds) Why the left loses. The Decline of the Centre-Left in Comparative Perspective, Policy Press 2017.

[3] For a comparison of the two manifestos see Josef Falkinger, Zwei Parteiprogramme: 1978 und 1998, http://blog.sektionacht.at/2014/03/zwei-parteiprogramme-1978-und-1998/

[4] Jacques Rancière, Das Unvernehmen (1995), Frankfurt am Main 2002, pp. 111 et seq.

[5] Cf. Walter Baier, Europas reaktionäre Rebellen, Vienna 2015.

[6] Cf. Manès Weisskircher, The Electoral Success of the Radical Left. Explaining the least likely case of the Communist Party in Graz, in: Government & Opposition 2017.

[7] Oliver Marchart, Die leere Nacht des Sozialismus, in: Gerhard Unterthurner / Andreas Hetzel (eds) Postdemokratie und die Verleugnung des Politischen, Baden-Baden 2016, pp. 57-75.

[8] Cf. Russell J Dalton, The Participation Gap. Social Status and Political Inequality, Oxford UP 2017.

[9] Cf. Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik and Wolfgang C. Müller, Intra-party democracy, political performance, and the survival of party leaders: Austria, 1945-2011, in: Party Politics 21(6)/2015, pp. 930-943. The SPÖ’s sub-division Sektion 8 is lobbying for more intra-party democracy having e.g. issued a concept for primary elections: http://zwickelsdorfer.at/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016-12-Vorwahlkonzept-Nationalratswahlen-Sektion-8.pdf

[10] Cf. Michael Brie and Cornelia Hildebrandt, Solidarische Mitte-Unten-Bündnisse, in: LuXemburg 2/2015, pp. 100-107.


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