- Interview by
- Adam Baltner
If the social experiments of “Red Vienna” long associated Austria with the historic high points of social democracy, recent decades have instead seen this Alpine republic become a laboratory for right-wing populism. But in Graz — the country’s second-biggest city after Vienna — there is an alternative to the reactionary trend. In this Sunday’s elections, the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) secured an unprecedented victory, winning 29 percent of the vote. With the defeat of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Communist Elke Kahr is now expected to become mayor.
The KPÖ’s striking success in this city — at odds with its marginal presence in national politics — owes to years of community engagement rooted in a steadfast class politics. Its progress wouldn’t have been possible without dedicated activists like thirty-four-year-old Robert Krotzer, who was second on the KPÖ list in this election. In 2017, he became the youngest person ever to be elected to the Graz city senate, since then serving as head of the Department of Health and of Caregiving at the Department of Social Services.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Krotzer spoke with Jacobin’s Adam Baltner about how the KPÖ built this unlikely “red fortress.”
In Austria’s national elections, the KPÖ normally earns about 1 percent of the vote. In Graz, however — the capital of the state of Styria — the party does considerably better, earning around 20 percent since the early 2000s. Why is the KPÖ so successful in Graz in particular?
This has to do with a political orientation going back to the early 1990s — a time of profound crisis for the Communist movement. Back then, one of the mottos of the KPÖ Styria was “A useful party for everyday life and for the grand objectives of the labor movement.” In line with this maxim, the party pursued a highly concrete politics, especially for tenants.
In particular, [former KPÖ politician and Graz party chair] Ernest Kaltenegger did tremendous work here, establishing for himself a very positive reputation among the population. Kaltenegger was always there to help others and lend an ear to their problems. To this day, people still tell stories about him even fixing things in their apartments. But he also politicized the issue of housing.
At the beginning of the 1990s, many developers tried to clear entire houses of tenants, sometimes with extremely draconian methods, such as removing windows from building entrances in January, allegedly because they were sending them away to be repaired. In 1991, an emergency tenants’ hotline was established as a first point of contact for people having trouble with their landlords. Legal counseling for “victims of speculators” — as they were then called — was also set up on Kaltenegger’s initiative. Out of this interplay of very concrete help and legal support, the KPÖ was able to make a name for itself.
A major campaign against high rent prices in public housing followed several years later. At the time, even in public housing, it wasn’t unusual for people to pay up to 55 percent of their income on rent. So the KPÖ introduced a bill in the city council stipulating that no one living in public housing would have to pay more than a third of their income in rent. Like so many other bills from the KPÖ, it was rejected by all the other parties. Subsequently, the KPÖ gathered signatures, particularly in public housing and together with tenants. The party then presented the city council with a “Petition in Accordance with Styrian Popular Law” containing seventeen thousand signatures and reintroduced the bill. This time, it passed unanimously.
The following election in 1998 marked the KPÖ’s first major breakthrough at the polls with 7.9 percent of the vote. Kaltenegger was given the Department of Housing by the ruling parties, who expected him to fail in this role. But things turned out differently. In fact, he was able to get a fair amount done, such as make sure that each public housing unit had its own toilet and bathroom. And then, in the 2003 election, the party achieved 20.8 percent.
This all shows that left-wing politics requires endurance and grassroots work. It also shows that parliamentary functionaries can use extra-parliamentary pressure to push things forward that would otherwise not be possible under the given power relations.
You just touched upon not only how the KPÖ has built support in Graz but also how it has influenced city politics from its role as an opposition party. What other examples are there of that?
One of the most enduring achievements of the KPÖ came in 2004 when it blocked the privatization of Graz’s public-housing stock. At the time, the [conservative] ÖVP, the SPÖ [Social Democratic Party of Austria], and indeed all other parties on the city council agreed on privatization. Sadly, around the same time, a “red-red” government in Berlin [a coalition between the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the predecessor to Die Linke] privatized apartments owned by the city.
Although we were still a small party at the time, we managed to gather more than ten thousand signatures for our petition against privatization, which according to Styrian law is the necessary number for an official referendum organized by the city. At the ballot box, about 96 percent voted against selling off the housing units. To this day, all parties have kept their hands off public housing — the issue of privatization has never resurfaced.
Even though we’ve never been one of the ruling coalition parties, we’ve held offices in the city executive since 1998. This is because of the proportional representation system, which allocates city senate seats on the basis of the parties’ vote shares. Currently, our party chair, Elke Kahr, leads the Department of Roads and the Department of Transportation Planning, and I am responsible for Health and Caregiving. We’ve had successes in both these areas — in spite of the difficult conditions of the past four and a half years under the right-wing coalition government between the ÖVP and the FPÖ [Freedom Party of Austria, far-right].
We’ve built new bicycle paths and improved public transportation by expanding the tram network and creating new bus lines. And we’ve introduced the so-called Graz Care Model, according to which care-dependent elders receive allowances from the city so that they can be cared for at home and don’t have to move into nursing homes.
When you were named responsible for Health and Caregiving in 2017, no one was expecting the COVID-19 crisis to hit. How have you been able to use your office to address the crisis at the local level?
The Graz Department of Health is a relatively small but nevertheless important department. In comparison to Vienna, which is both a city and its own state, Graz is only a city. For this reason, unlike our Viennese counterpart, we lack certain responsibilities, such as administering hospital associations. As I took over the department, people in Young People’s Party [youth organization of the conservative ÖVP] circles were saying, “Krotzer’s getting the Department of Health because he can’t do any damage there anyway.” This paints a picture of how seriously the ÖVP takes the issues of health and caregiving. In comparison, they’ve always been of crucial importance to us in the KPÖ.
Urban health policy with regards to the COVID crisis means, above all, contact tracing, or following and breaking chains of infection. This is, of course, an enormous task for any public health agency. In February 2020, the Graz Office of Epidemiology consisted of exactly two and a half positions. By November 2020, two hundred people were working there.
However, we haven’t simply fulfilled our administrative duties. Working with migrant and elderly organizations as well as with welfare institutions, we started a telephone chain in March 2020 in order to spread information and to find out what people knew and needed at the time. We then supported them in concrete ways, such as by connecting them with shopping services or providing them with grocery vouchers.
The national and state governments made numerous promises that they would make rapid antigen tests available to the public, yet in the fall of 2020, we ended up paying for these out of our own pocket and sending them to nursing homes, home health providers, and welfare institutions. In order to bring the vaccine to the population, we also conducted special vaccination campaigns — such as for the sellers of the street newspaper Megafon and in the Graz mosque, in churches, in libraries, and in different parts of the city. All of this is in keeping with our aim to be a useful party for everyday life.
The election coverage was dominated by speculation about which parties will join the governing coalition. In your opinion, what are the decisive issues?
Only very rarely have voters raised the issue of potential coalitions to me. Rather, conversations at information stands tend to be about how people have received help from us in highly concrete ways. And that is absolutely a major bonus that we have as the KPÖ.
Every year, thousands of people visit Elke [Kahr] and myself in our office hours. There, we see how we can best help them, whether by providing them with legal advice, helping them fill out applications, or giving them direct financial support — KPÖ representatives in the city senate and the Styrian Landtag [parliament] voluntarily donate two-thirds of their salaries to people in need.
For us, this is definitely not charity. Rather, it is a form of politics oriented around a basic socialist-communist principle that goes back to the Paris Commune. I think it’s hard to speak genuinely empathically with someone who works full time for €1,200 a month, when you earn three, four, five times that much. After all, as Marx said: Being determines consciousness.
In addition to the failure of [the right-wing governing coalition’s] social policy, I would name rapidly progressing urban sprawl as another one of the major issues. In Graz, construction plans are approved and green spaces given away extremely frivolously because the ÖVP mayor Siegfried Nagl [who resigned this Sunday] is quite friendly toward investors. Many people are massively disturbed by this. Not few have even said to me, because of the building frenzy of the last few years, “My whole life I’ve never voted for any party but the ÖVP, but enough is enough.”
The program of the KPÖ Styria highlights the heritage of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Because of this open commitment to a radical politics, the conservative ÖVP has been red-baiting you for years — apparently without much success. How do you handle anti-communist smears?
In spring of this year, we issued a press release commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the first manned space flight. Of course, the first person in space was the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The ÖVP attempted to trip us up by submitting an urgent motion to the city council demanding parties distance themselves from all totalitarian ideologies, including Soviet Communism. All other parties, including the SPÖ and the Greens, voted in favor of this motion. The ÖVP then expressed outrage over the fact that we refused.
Our response was ultimately fairly measured. We’ve known the ÖVP long enough to understand what they want to achieve with something like this. Our city councilwoman Elke Heinrichs gave a speech extensively detailing that the KPÖ has always been the leading force of resistance against fascism in Austria and — in contrast to the other parties that have been around since the postwar period — has never had comrades with fascist pasts. In other words, when it comes to questions of distancing, the ÖVP should put its own house in order.
Of course, there are many aspects of the history of actually existing socialism that we as communists and Marxists have to discuss. But we don’t have to do this at the behest of the ÖVP, and especially through the lens which they view history.
This anti-communist gambit by the ÖVP was never a topic of discussion at any of our information stands. I think it probably went largely unnoticed by the general population, because quite a few people already have a very concrete connection to the KPÖ — either they know one of us, or they see us on the street, or they know that we’re the reason the tenants’ hotline exists. These things are far more important to people.
So far, the KPÖ’s success in Graz has not been replicated in other cities in Austria. But do you think that a national or even international political movement can be built up through municipal politics?
Naturally, we don’t preach socialism in one city or something like a municipal transition to socialism. But in general, I am convinced that left-wing politics needs to be developed from below. And that means establishing roots in at the level of the municipality, or even the shop floor, and being in constant contact with people. It’s important to engage in areas where you can show concretely that you’re a useful force. And workers’ parties can learn a lot from this kind of engagement.
In recent decades, the Left may have neglected this insight somewhat. People have thought we have the sophisticated texts, we have the volumes of Marx and Engels and Lenin, and with these we will be able to deal with the world. But only through constant exchange with people can you find out where the real problems are. If you and your comrades want to work together to change and improve people’s conditions, this knowledge is central.
There are various examples of successful left-wing politics on the municipal or shop-floor level — for example, in Alentejo in Portugal, where there are communities that have been administered by the Portuguese Communist Party since the 1974 Carnation Revolution, or the [Communist-affiliated trade union organization] PAME in Greece.
An exciting new development is the success of the Workers’ Party of Belgium. On the basis of their long-standing roots in shop-floor organizing, this party managed to become a force in municipal politics before making the big leap onto the national stage in 2019. This achievement is really quite impressive. But it was also developed on a small scale. It certainly wouldn’t have been possible without local roots.