Austria’s Bernie Sanders Beat the Establishment and Became Party Leader

For years, Austria’s Social Democrats have embraced the values of the free market and lost ever more working-class votes. Now, left-winger Andreas Babler has surged to the party leadership — and promises to transform his country’s politics.

Andreas Babler has been elected chairman of Austria’s Social Democratic Party. (Georg Hochmuth / APA / AFP via Getty Images)

Andreas Babler’s bid to become chairman of Austria’s Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) appeared to be a familiar story of initial promise and inevitable disappointment. For ten weeks, the left-winger’s impassioned, insurgent campaign had surely kindled enthusiasm on the Left. Yet at the party congress on Saturday, June 3 in Linz, it looked as though it wasn’t enough. Once the slightly more than six hundred delegates had cast their ballots, it was announced that Babler had earned 47 percent of the vote, falling just short of the ultimate prize. His opponent, Hans Peter Doskozil, the face of the party’s right wing, was declared the winner.

Then, a bombshell. Shortly after the results were published, public TV anchorman Martin Thür pointed out on Twitter that the sum of the valid and invalid votes didn’t match the total number of ballots cast. On the Monday afternoon, SPÖ electoral commission director Michaela Grubesa announced that a recount had uncovered a far more egregious error: the vote totals of the candidates had been switched while being entered into an Excel spreadsheet.

On the following day, Grubesa — a member of the Styrian state parliament and the domestic partner of Max Lercher, the campaign manager of Babler’s opponent Doskozil — announced her resignation as the electoral commission director. The votes were then counted for a third time. Finally, the official confirmation arrived: Babler had in fact received 53 percent of the vote — and was elected chairman of his party.

A Socialist Head of the SPÖ

This story may sound incredible. But it is less unbelievable than the mere fact that a politician with Babler’s profile now stands at the helm of the SPÖ.

The fifty-year-old mayor of Traiskirchen — a Vienna suburb with a population of just under nineteen thousand — Babler can be regarded as the Austrian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. A former secretary of Austria’s Socialist Youth and vice president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, Babler was socialized as a Marxist in his late teens and early twenties. Yet unlike many Social Democratic leaders today who were once young radicals before distancing themselves from their pasts, Babler has remained faithful to his ideological commitments.

At least since the 1990s, the SPÖ has pursued a neoliberal course that offers no perspective for fundamental social transformation. But Babler still describes himself as a socialist and even refers on occasion to Marxism, which he described in a recent television appearance as “a good lens through which to view the world.” In speeches and interviews, he also emphasizes the SPÖ’s rich history as a workers’ party and his own biography as the child of a working-class family and a former machinist working in a factory. Experiences such as these contextualize his own political approach, which he portrays as a return to Social Democracy’s radical roots.

An Unprecedented Situation

This outcome is also unusual insofar as SPÖ chairpersons aren’t typically elected at party congresses at all. Instead, they are selected behind closed doors by other insiders and simply confirmed in functionally symbolic party congress elections where they don’t face any opposing candidates. Yet after the SPÖ suffered heavy losses in state elections in Lower Austria and Carinthia earlier this year, the party made a historically unprecedented decision: ahead of its June 3 congress in Linz, it would let its members vote on who they thought should lead the party.

This member survey had been conceived as a way to resolve the years-long and highly public factional dispute between party chairperson Pamela Rendi-Wagner and Doskozil, the governor of the state of Burgenland. But Babler seized the moment and announced his own campaign. Suddenly, the long-anticipated duel became a three-way contest — and the dark-horse candidate seemed to stand a decent chance. The simmering “directional dispute” between the epidemiology professor Rendi-Wagner and former state police chief Doskozil mainly boiled down to differences in electoral strategy, rather than political program. But it seemed that former factory worker Babler could offer dissatisfied members a genuine alternative.

For years, Rendi-Wagner has embodied the SPÖ’s attempt to appeal more to Austria’s urban, educated middle classes by adopting a liberal-technocratic demeanor. Doskozil has instead tried to use law-and-order politics and critical remarks on migration to win back the sections of the native-born working class that have rejected the SPÖ in favor of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).

Yet neither Rendi-Wagner nor Doskozil have opposed the party’s neoliberal course. In fact, on both economic policy and the issue of migration, there was little substantive policy difference between the two. Babler, however, stands in stark contrast to both Rendi-Wagner’s “left neoliberalism” and Doskozil’s “right neoliberalism” in terms of his demands as well as his insistence on an economic system change. “It’s high time to question the system. We need new rules for our economy and society,” his campaign website proclaimed.

In line with this vision of “politics from below,” Babler’s campaign focused on mobilizing the SPÖ’s base. In the few days between the announcement of the membership survey and the deadline for new member participation, nearly ten thousand people joined the SPÖ, presumably mostly due to the outsider candidate. While the survey ran in late April and early May, Babler traveled across Austria, delivering speeches to thousands of enthusiastic supporters about his goals of eliminating childhood poverty, shortening the work week while maintaining full pay, and removing the provision of basic needs such as housing and energy from the market. His campaign sparked a hopeful mood among Austrian leftists — both inside and outside of the SPÖ.

Astonishingly, when the results of the membership campaign were announced on May 22, all three candidates had almost exactly one-third of the vote. Babler was in second with 31.51 percent — two points behind Doskozil’s 33.68 percent, but slightly ahead of Rendi-Wagner’s 31.35 percent. As the latter had clearly lost her hegemony among the party rank and file, despite support from important parts of its bureaucracy, she emerged from the virtual draw as the only clear loser — and resigned. Babler, however, announced that he would continue his campaign and stand against Doskozil at the party congress.

Although a Babler victory was far from a foregone conclusion, he hoped to be able to benefit from the enthusiasm generated by his campaign but also to convince “pragmatic” delegates from Rendi-Wagner’s camp to vote against their archenemy, Doskozil. And indeed, this calculation paid off.

Bablers Base of Power

If Babler really wants to lead the SPÖ back to its roots as a workers’ party, his election as chairperson will be merely the beginning of a much longer struggle that could go on for years.

The SPÖ is a highly bureaucratic party with various levels of elected politicians and professional functionaries — and those who openly criticize the (neoliberal) party line don’t generally advance very far within its sprawling structures. Many higher-ranking SPÖ personalities are primarily concerned with maintaining their own power and share neither Babler’s understanding of social democracy nor his vision for the party. This is also apparent from Babler’s extremely narrow margin of victory at the party congress: he never would have even come close to winning 50 percent of the delegates had his opponent not been downright despised by sections of the party bureaucracy for interpersonal reasons.

But the biggest hurdle for Babler’s attempt to transform the SPÖ may actually be the party’s rank and file. Although he won one-third of the membership, two variations of neoliberalism ultimately won a combined two-thirds. This surely does not mean that the majority of the rank and file supports neoliberalism; rather, the nearly perfect tripartite division of the votes signifies a general ideological disorientation. The party leadership has cultivated this disorientation for decades, by failing to represent a coherent political vision.

Now, the depoliticization of the rank and file poses a danger to Babler’s project. It will make it easier for his opponents within the party to drive a wedge through his base by boosting sensitive issues with the help of the bourgeois press — just as was done to Jeremy Corbyn with the Brexit dilemma. This strategy was already on display in the week before the party congress, when various media outlets suddenly reported on a podcast interview from 2020 in which Babler criticized the EU as the “most aggressive military alliance that has ever existed” and “worse than NATO.”

Although these remarks were arguably somewhat exaggerated, it’s crucial to grasp that the purpose of such media attacks is to deny all legitimacy to figures such as Babler who dare to contradict the neoliberal consensus. This much was obvious from the spate of outraged op-eds, which were less concerned with discussing the validity of Babler’s statements than whether they disqualified him as a potential chairperson of the SPÖ.

Given the undemocratic and market-liberal foundations of the EU, a critique of the institution is a basic necessity for all European political parties genuinely striving for progressive social transformation — regardless of the concrete demands these parties derive from their critiques. Although it is true that the EU is often targeted by forces of the extreme right in contemporary discourse, it does not follow that progressive parties should shy away from criticizing the EU from the left. On the contrary, it would be disastrous to leave this important issue to the Right.

When cynical actors attack Babler for his views on this and other sensitive issues, he mustn’t simply backtrack. This would embolden rather than pacify his opponents. Instead, he must be able to show backbone and explain his position in a calm, cool, and collected manner to his actual audience — the working-class majority of Austrian society. If he can do so, he might manage to re-politicize the SPÖ rank and file and cultivate a genuine base of power capable of serving as a counterweight to the hostile party bureaucracy and fourth estate.

A Chance to Turn the Tables

Babler’s election as SPÖ chairperson has come as a moment that is in many ways unique in Austrian political history. First, the far-right FPÖ is currently flying high in the polls, which it has been leading for months at just under 30 percent. In and of itself, this is not unusual by Austrian standards, yet in view of the coming parliamentary elections, which must be held by fall 2024, an FPÖ chancellorship has never been so likely.

The last time that the FPÖ enjoyed similar polling numbers was in the spring of 2017 — shortly before the young, polished anti-migration hard-liner Sebastian Kurz took over as chairperson of the historically center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and absorbed a large chunk of the FPÖ’s electorate. However, Kurz is now history, after being forced to resign two years ago following a series of corruption scandals. This time around, it’s unlikely that another uniquely popular figure is going to step in and save the stagnating ÖVP before the election.

For years, Herbert Kickl had been regarded as the leading ideologue of the FPÖ. If he were to become Austria’s chancellor, the results would be catastrophic for the working class, for the rights of women and migrants, and potentially also for Austrian democracy. However, Kickl and the FPÖ may have met their match in Babler, who addresses precisely the realities fueling the growing resentment toward the political establishment in an authentic and down-to-earth way.

To some, this resentment makes the bellicose FPÖ appear as a plausible alternative, yet the right-wing extremists have nothing to offer the vast majority in Austria by way of actual solutions to the current cost-of-living crisis, among other problems. This insight is often repeated by self-consciously ideological leftists. But it could become obvious to a much wider audience, if Babler shifts public debate to issues such as rising rent, food prices, and energy bills.

Heading one of Austria’s largest parties, Babler is in an optimal position to change the debate throughout the country. Important media outlets now have to discuss his policy proposals for far-reaching economic redistribution. Doubtless, the usual talking heads will belittle these proposals as pie-in-the-sky demands made by a naïve Red. But if Babler resists the pressure to water down his program, he could expand the political horizon of possibility for many. And that would benefit the broader left.

This is especially important given another novel development: the renaissance of the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) in recent years. Following its surprise victory in the 2021 city election in Graz and its astounding entry into the Salzburg state parliament in April of this year, the KPÖ now enjoys national relevance for the first time since it dropped out of the national parliament in 1959. The Communists’ profile and membership are increasing, and it is to be expected that they will make substantial gains in various city and state elections in 2024. Since the Salzburg state election, the KPÖ has also been polling between 3 and 7 percent in national polls, giving the party a realistic chance of surpassing the 4 percent threshold and returning to parliament after sixty-five years’ absence.

If Babler achieves an enduring victory against his party opponents and renews the SPÖ as a workers’ party, the KPÖ would have in him a suitable partner on the national level. But for the foreseeable future, the task of the KPÖ is still to build an independent, ideologically resolute force to the left of Social Democracy — a force that doesn’t just criticize capitalism in its neoliberal form, but advocates for a fundamentally different economic system based not on the pursuit of profit but the fulfillment of human needs.

If Babler’s SPÖ finishes in first in the election and then decides to enter into a coalition either with the Greens and the libertarian NEOS or even with the ÖVP to secure a governing majority — not entirely unimaginable scenarios, for mathematical reasons — the KPÖ will be needed in parliament more than ever to provide credible opposition from the Left. Otherwise, the FPÖ will be able to keep posturing as the sole alternative to the status quo and continue to gain strength.

According to mainstream analysis, it would have been better for the KPÖ if Doskozil and not Babler had been elected to lead the SPÖ: the ex-cop would have driven left-wing SPÖ voters into the arms of the KPÖ and assured their return to parliament, or so that was the assumption. Yet this case is less clear than it seems. Even though Doskozil is unpopular among SPÖ leftists, it is highly likely that many of them would have voted for their party anyway to block an FPÖ victory.

Although Babler addresses similar class issues to the KPÖ, the latter may benefit in the long term if the population becomes politicized around these issues: by comparison, it never hurt the far right for long when the conservatives appropriated their positions, as current polls show. In the coming national election campaign, the KPÖ must emphasize that they have been successfully representing the interests of working people for some time and have achieved numerous concrete victories — both as a governing party on the municipal level and as an oppositional force. By doing so, they may be able to win over many of the voters who for whatever reason are not prepared to trust the SPÖ — and thus even extend the left-wing camp in Austria.

Both the KPÖ and the SPÖ’s left wing now stand before difficult struggles that will not be decided overnight. But who could have imagined a few years ago that in Austria — a vanguard of right-wing populism in Europe — a left-wing renewal of this sort would even enter the realm of possibility?