Austria’s Communist Party Is Defying the Right-Wing Turn

Magdalena Berger
Adam Baltner

After two years heading Graz city hall, Communist Elke Kahr was recently named the world’s best mayor. Now, her Communist Party is hoping to win power in Salzburg and show that Austria isn’t doomed to turn to the far right.

Members of the Communist Party of Austria raise their fists at their 2023 party conference. (KPÖ Bundespartei / Flickr)

Barely five years ago, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) found itself mired in a crisis with no end in sight. Things had started to go wrong in May 2019, when the press obtained hidden-camera footage of FPÖ chairman and federal vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache apparently drunk and high on cocaine during a vacation in Ibiza. He was shown promising political favors to a Russian heiress (actually an actress involved in a sting operation) if she bought Austria’s biggest tabloid and turned it into a mouthpiece for his party. Within twenty-four hours of the video being released, it had brought down the federal government — a coalition between the FPÖ and the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) — and forced Strache’s resignation from all political functions. Now lacking its star, the FPÖ was exposed as at least as corrupt as the “establishment” it loves to criticize — and that fall, it lost almost 10 percentage points in a snap national election. In ensuing months, the far-right party suffered yet more electoral defeats on the state level and descended into infighting.

One pandemic and one massive inflationary wave later, the FPÖ’s self-inflicted crisis feels like ancient history. In 2024, Salzburg (population 155,000) and Innsbruck (population 130,000), Austria’s fourth- and fifth-largest cities respectively, are set to hold elections, as are the states of Styria (population 1.25 million) and Vorarlberg (population 400,000). On top of all that, there will also be two national elections — in June for the European Union (EU) parliament, and likely in September for Austria’s national parliament. Particularly on the national level, the FPÖ’s prospects couldn’t be better as Austria heads into its mega election year.

For months, FPÖ chairman Herbert Kickl has stood atop all polls, which have only varied on how wide his margin of victory will be. Though he may lack the charisma of a Strache or a Jörg Haider, the New Right pioneer who transformed the FPÖ from a “national liberal” to an ethnonationalist party back in the 1980s, Kickl’s party currently hovers around 30 percent nationally. In contrast, the ÖVP and the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) struggle to break out of the low 20s, while the left-liberal Greens and the libertarian NEOS sit at about 10 percent.

Although the election of the left-wing firebrand Andreas Babler as SPÖ chairman kindled hope that the party would recover in the polls, so far this hasn’t been the case. His momentum has been stymied, at least in part, by hostile elements within his party. Meanwhile, the Greens have destroyed much of their credibility since replacing the FPÖ as junior partners in Austria’s ÖVP-led coalition government, effectively becoming executors of the ÖVP’s right-wing agenda.

If there is a glimmer of hope for the Left in the Alpine Republic, it is to be found the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ), which is experiencing an upsurge after decades on the margins. In Styria, the Communists are poised to make inroads. Following the 2021 election of Elke Kahr as mayor of the Styrian capital Graz (population 300,000), Austria’s second-biggest city, Kahr’s comrade Kay-Michael Dankl appears to have a shot at winning the mayor’s office in Salzburg. This fall, the KPÖ might even clear the 4 percent threshold required to make it into Austrian parliament.

Momentum for the Communists

Heading into 2024, the KPÖ stands to benefit from the fact that elections will occur in the states where it has been successful in recent years. First among these is Styria, where the party has been represented in state parliament since as far back as 2005. A recent poll put the Styrian Communists at 14 percent, more than double its result in the 2019 state election. While polls should be taken with a pinch of salt, it is safe to assume that the party will achieve significant gains in its traditional stronghold.

Thus far, Graz’s mayor Elke Kahr has not disappointed. She was in fact named world’s best mayor for 2023 thanks to her “selfless dedication to her city and its people.” Meanwhile, attempts by political opponents in Graz to attack the KPÖ by targeting the party’s positions on foreign policy have had little effect. Neither the Communists’ refusal to “avow their support” for the EU’s sanctions against Russia when the staunchly Atlanticist NEOS challenged them to do so, nor the fact that they were the only party to vote against flying the Israeli flag at city hall after October 7, 2023, has hurt their support. Though Werner Murgg, a KPÖ member of the Styrian state parliament, has single-handedly brought the party a steady stream of negative press for his trips to Donbas in 2019 and Belarus in 2021, he will not again stand for election in 2024.

In its state strongholds in Styria and Salzburg, the KPÖ has proven to be an effective antidote to political disaffection. Voting pattern analyses of the 2021 Graz mayoral election reveal that the Communists won votes from all parties but performed especially well among previous nonvoters. Analyses of the April 2023 Salzburg state election, which saw the thirty-four-year-old historian and museum tour guide Kay-Michael Dankl lead the KPÖ to an unprecedented 11.7 percent, tell a similar story. Since that election, Dankl has only become more popular. According to a poll from December, he enjoys the highest approval rating of any politician in Salzburg state parliament by far. Dankl is now running for mayor of Salzburg city and stands a decent chance of winning the election on March 10. Similarly to last year’s state election, his campaign is largely focused on housing, a hot-button issue in Austria’s second-most expensive city in terms of rent.

Following a tradition started decades ago by the KPÖ in Styria, its newly elected members of the Salzburg state parliament have decided to cap their own salaries at €2,400 a month — about what an average tradesperson earns — and give the rest to people in need. In this way, Salzburg’s Communists raised a total of €45,626.60 for constituents in 2023 alone, adding to the €3.2 million collected by the Styrian party organization since 1998. Wherever it has held elected office, this practice has helped the party establish credibility, helping it to enter the mayor’s office in Graz and making it a serious contender to do so in Salzburg.

Led by the thirty-five-year-old social worker Pia Tomedi, the KPÖ is also looking to establish a foothold in Innsbruck, the capital of the state of Tyrol. In Tyrol, the party is still in the early stages of a building phase and is currently collecting signatures to get on the ballot in the Innsbruck city elections in April. Yet it is not unlikely that the recipe from Graz and Salzburg will find success here as well. Innsbruck has the most expensive rent prices of any city in Austria, and in Tyrol, the SPÖ has traditionally been weak. Like Kahr and Dankl, Tomedi has placed particular emphasis on the issue of housing. If she is elected to the Innsbruck city council, this may well lead to KPÖ gains elsewhere in the Tyrol as well: in both Styria and Salzburg state, the Communists’ successes began when they won seats on the city councils of their respective capitals.

Don’t Trust the ÖVP

Heading into the fall, these elections could give the KPÖ the momentum it needs to make its spectacular entrance into the Austrian parliament, where it last held seats in 1959. Unfortunately, however, this is hardly sufficient cause for left-wing jubilation, for across the country, the KPÖ’s potential success is more than overshadowed by the bullish prognoses for the FPÖ.

There is a high probability that the FPÖ will be one of the parties making up Austria’s next government, in all likelihood with the ÖVP’s support. Although everyone in the ÖVP from chairman and Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer downwards has claimed that a coalition with an FPÖ led by Herbert Kickl is out of the question, this vague promise that should not be taken seriously — setting aside the fact that the FPÖ is an extreme right party whether or not it is helmed by Kickl. Many suspect that the ÖVP might even be willing to give the chancellor’s office to the FPÖ as part of a coalition agreement.

Unlike in Germany, collaboration with right-wing extremists has long ceased to be a breach of taboo in Austria. In addition to the ÖVP and the SPÖ, the so-called Drittes Lager (Third Camp) has been a fixture of the country’s postwar order. 1949 saw the foundation of the FPÖ’s predecessor party, the Federation of Independents (VdU). Ostensibly libertarian in orientation, it opened its doors to pan-Germanists and ex-Nazis who had been blacklisted from by two major parties, reintegrating them into national politics. Starting in the 1980s, Jörg Haider transformed the FPÖ into the prototype of what most media outlets now refer to as a “right-wing populist” party. Twenty years before the Alternative for Germany (AfD) had even been founded, the FPÖ had already earned as much as 22 percent of the vote in a national election.

For years, politicians in Austria dealt with the FPÖ in exactly the same manner as they are doing today in Germany: conservatives and social democrats distanced themselves from the right-wing extremists and made campaign promises that there would be no coalition with them. Then, in 1999, a dramatic reversal occurred: ÖVP chairman Wolfgang Schüssel announced a national coalition government with the FPÖ. The “firewall” against the far right, to which so many Germans continue to cling today, was torn down in Austria back in the 1990s.

Under Austria’s disgraced ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), whose rhetoric was barely distinguishable from that of the FPÖ, the alliance between the center right and far right was fully consolidated. Since his 2017–19 national coalition with the FPÖ, such coalitions have become the new normal on the state level. In Salzburg state and Lower Austria, the ÖVP has governed with the FPÖ since 2023, after the latter made massive electoral recoveries. In Upper Austria — the birthplace of both Adolf Hitler and Jörg Haider — a harmonious right/far-right coalition has existed since 2015.

If the ÖVP has no qualms about governing with the FPÖ even in Lower Austria, the state with perhaps the most extreme right-wing FPÖ party organization, why would it think twice about doing so on the national level? During the 2018 state election in Lower Austria, the FPÖ attacked ÖVP Lower Austria chairwoman Johanna Mikl-Leitner as “Moslem Mama Mikl,” and FPÖ Lower Austria’s Udo Landbauer was exposed as belonging to a German nationalist dueling fraternity whose songbook included numbers about resuming the Holocaust. Today Udo Landbauer serves under Mikl-Leitner as the vice governor of Lower Austria.

Particularly since shifting to the right under Sebastian Kurz, the ÖVP has become much closer ideologically to the FPÖ than to the Greens or the SPÖ. In the current national government with the Greens, the conservatives have been forced to take up issues they would personally rather ignore, such as the Greens’ longtime demand for a new comprehensive climate law. With the FPÖ, in contrast, they would be able to reach swift agreements on key points: less climate legislation, even more racist immigration laws, and a “leaner state.”

In the FPÖ’s most recent economic platform, which was drafted in 2017, the party demanded tax breaks for the wealthy and for businesses, along with cuts to social spending. If such policies sound like they could just as well come from the ÖVP, this should hardly come as a surprise — both parties primarily serve the interests of the ruling class.

Despite what is widely assumed, the FPÖ has never seriously compromised its popularity by participating in governments. Not once have the party’s actions in office led Austrians to become “disenchanted” with it or suddenly outraged by its right-wing extremism. By the same merit, other parties have yet to find an effective recipe for stopping the FPÖ. Rather, its crises were always self-inflicted, caused by corruption or internal strife. Every time, it has successfully rebounded sooner or later — today, five years after the largest corruption scandal in its history, the FPÖ is stronger than ever.

A Right-Wing Country?

Instead of countering the FPÖ with alternative narratives and principled political stances, Austria’s other main parties have gradually adopted its positions as their own — the same unsuccessful strategy now being pursued by Emmanuel Macron against the National Rally in France and by Friedrich Merz against the AfD in Germany. Particularly on the issue of asylum and migration, earlier FPÖ demands have now become mainstream. The biggest beneficiary of this shift has been the FPÖ.

The SPÖ and ÖVP have long avoided developing their own positions on these questions, assuming that Austria simply has an insurmountable “right-wing majority.” Austrians, so this conventional wisdom goes, are simply culturally right-wing and cannot be won over with left-wing issues.

It is true that right-wing parties in Austria, when added together, have enjoyed a virtually unbroken majority for decades. Yet particularly for the SPÖ, assuming this to be an immutable reality was a critical mistake. No one is born a right-winger or a fascist, even in Austria. Rather, majorities must be built. Left-wingers, of all people, should know this. Time and again, they have repeated like a mantra that people can be reached through credible political offers — ones that tangibly improve their everyday lives.

Since taking over as SPÖ chairman half a year ago, Andreas Babler has tried to make this into his party’s credo. He briefly succeeded during his campaign for the party chairmanship: a contest between him and the more right-wing Hans Peter Doskozil over the future direction of social democracy. For weeks, Austrian media was focused not on the FPÖ’s core issues — asylum and migration — but on proposals for a shorter work week, a wealth tax, and equal pay for women.

Yet since his election, Babler has found himself in the difficult position of having to unite both his fans and opponents behind him. Among left-wingers, anxiety has spread that his project will be brought down by conservative structures and right-wing colleagues within his own party — just as happened to Jeremy Corbyn in Labour.

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a center-left German newspaper, Babler explained his recently more reserved public persona as follows: “In a difficult situation, we saw that we first had to direct our energy inwards to unify the party.” Once this is accomplished, he claimed, the party will work on a “broad pallet of issues” to be presented externally. Babler must urgently make this shift.

Most national polls have Babler in second place. To beat Kickl, he will need to reawaken the spirit of the SPÖ primary. He must stand decisively behind his demands — regardless of whether he draws criticism from his opponents in the SPÖ’s state organizations. He needs to show that he has his party under control and will not cave to heckling from Doskozil and his ilk.

A respectable performance for the SPÖ and a regional upswing for the KPÖ on the scale currently being forecasted will not be enough to stop the worst-case scenario of an FPÖ chancellorship this year. Yet developments in Styria and Salzburg fuel hope for better times. After all, such left-wing “islands of resistance,” as Graz mayor Elke Kahr once referred to them, prove that a politics beyond economic callousness and racist agitation is possible.