June 3 won’t be a date that many in the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) will want to remember for very long. For months, the anti-migration hardliner Hans Peter Doskozil had launched attacks on the party’s sitting leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, before achieving his aim of forcing a leadership election. After weeks of campaigning, two final candidates remained. Doskozil made it to the final round, promising a tough migration policy to reclaim votes from the Right.
Opposing him stood Andreas Babler, mayor of the small city of Traiskirchen and a veteran member of his party’s left. Babler had only narrowly made it to the final round, beating Rendi-Wagner to second place with a margin of 0.1 percent.
One poll before the final round put the two candidates neck and neck, but Doskozil had a good chance of winning over disgruntled SPÖ delegates. Many were convinced that his promises to return electoral success to the party were enough to get him over the line. But before voting, Babler gave a compelling speech, confounding many critics, and was met with rapturous applause.
The delegates’ votes were counted, and the result was in: Doskozil won with 53 percent of delegates and was declared the winner. On the Left, heads dropped in disappointment. People left the room. Many of those who had been so impassioned by Babler’s speech and who were convinced of his victory said that there was nothing left but to tear up their membership cards.
This wasn’t to be the end of Babler’s story. Afterward, a journalist from Austria’s main broadcaster, ORF, noticed a missing vote in the final result and reported it to the SPÖ’s electoral commission. The vote was recounted and the electoral commissioner, Michaela Grubesa, announced that “the results were mixed up due to a technical error in the Excel file,” a problem to which many office workers can certainly relate. Soon Babler was informed of his victory and officially elected as the new party chair, later describing the events as “painful.”
Babler will now lead a party that has not increased its proportion of seats in parliament since 2002. To understand his vision, we need to look at how he was shaped into the politician he is today.
A Voice of the People
Babler was born to a working-class family in the town of Mödling, a stone’s throw from Vienna. At the age of sixteen, he joined the Socialist Youth of Austria (SJÖ), a socialist, anti-fascist, internationalist youth organisation with a close relationship to the SPÖ. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming vice president of the group’s international section.
Since 1995, he has been a member of Lower Austria’s local council, becoming the mayor of the city of Traiskirchen in 2014. The former artillery school on the outskirts of the city has been a home for refugees since 1956. Amid the increasing number of people fleeing conflict in 2015, the camp became critically overcrowded. Over a thousand people were sleeping outside, the toilet conditions were inhumane, and there were extreme food supply issues. The head of the Austrian branch of Amnesty said at the time that, “they are just left alone and have to survive there. They are the last ones who get to eat and this is a really heavy human rights violation of the convention for children.”
As mayor, Babler openly criticized the policies of then interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner. In 2014, he stated, “Given [Austria’s] population of 8.5 million inhabitants and well over 100 million overnight tourist stays, 25,000 refugees who are receiving basic care is a low number.” He highlighted the terrible conditions, imploring the government to provide humane accommodation for refugees and to abolish overcrowded camps.
During the leadership election, comments he made in 2020 in which he referred to the EU as the “most aggressive military alliance that has ever existed” and argued that its doctrine was “worse than NATO” surfaced. For those unfamiliar with the workings of the bloc, and the long tradition of left-wing opposition to its undemocratic expansion, Babler’s comments might seem to put him in the company of the political right rather than left. Austria joined the European Union in 1995 after a referendum in which 33 percent of the population voted against EU accession. While the mainstream parties backed the move, the Greens, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), and Babler’s SJÖ officially objected to joining the union.
Last month, Babler also raised eyebrows by stating, “I am a Marxist, I am Marxist-oriented, ever since my days in the youth organization.” When pushed on these comments in a further interview, he doubled down, saying that, “I really don’t understand the reaction. Marx was a thinker who shaped the party and the party’s program in many ways.”
For many, it might appear shocking that a leader of a European social democratic party could elect someone as openly left-wing as Babler. His days in the SJÖ shaped him into the politician he is today, and he was rewarded for staying true to his beliefs as the organization helped to get his name on the ballot box.
The Steep Climb Ahead
Babler’s path to power looks daunting. With a legislative election on the horizon next year, the far-right FPÖ is surging ahead in the polls, with some putting the party above 30 percent. A coalition between the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the FPÖ still looks to be the most likely scenario.
The chaos of the miscount will no doubt make the SPÖ appear less credible, especially after months of infighting. However, from the 2019 FPÖ’s Ibiza scandal, in which members of the party were filmed offering government contracts in exchange for positive news coverage, to the corruption probes of the former ÖVP chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, Austrian parties have a knack for recovering from political embarrassment.
The route from youth leader to city mayor to chancellor is nothing new. Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, cut his teeth as a member of the Marxist wing of the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s youth organization (at the time criticizing the “aggressive-imperialist NATO”), later becoming mayor of Hamburg for seven years before becoming chancellor in 2021. Nevertheless, Babler has held on to the politics of his youth, while Scholz has shed his anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist commitments.
The victories of the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) in local elections have shown that there is an appetite for a genuinely radical agenda in traditionally conservative areas. Babler is not well-known in the west of the country, where the KPÖ has seen success, but he could find fertile ground there. The Green Party, whose agenda garnered vast support in the last national election, has lost credibility since joining in a coalition government with the conservative ÖVP. Progressives are looking for an alternative; under Babler’s leadership the SPÖ could offer one.
In the coming months, Babler will have to flesh out his vision for a left-wing Austria. What is clear is the deep economic precarity that the country’s most vulnerable face. Austria has a rampant child poverty problem, with 370,000 children and teens at risk of poverty or exclusion. The energy crisis and skyrocketing inflation have hit the country hard due to its dependence on Russian gas, boosting the popularity of a far right that doesn’t align with the Western sanction system. A poll in November last year showed that Austrians’ faith in their democratic system had collapsed, with two-thirds now unhappy with their country’s political institutions.
Babler cannot be accused of being unambitious about his party’s future. In his campaign, he proclaimed the “incredible comeback of social democracy.” After his manifesto was labeled a daydream, he retorted, “Dreamer? That’s just another word for Social Democrat.” His optimism has caught on, with thousands of new party members having joined in the past week.
His beliefs are rooted in something different from what we’ve come to expect from the social democratic mainstream in recent decades. They emerge out of an attempt to build on the radical legacies of social democracy by pushing for the further decommodification of society. Whether the Austrian left can break the near-universal trend of accommodation to the norms set by conservative and liberal parties will depend on Babler’s ability to forge a coalition within and outside of his party. Whether such a project is feasible remains an open question.