Austria’s Communists Are Curbing the Far Right’s Rise

Austria’s Communist Party just increased its vote by over 20% in the Salzburg city elections — and it now has a shot at winning the mayor’s office. It shows that a party that credibly fights for working people’s interests can do well anywhere.

View of Salzburg, Austria, September 18, 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

This past Sunday, all of Austria looked in eager anticipation toward Salzburg, where the country’s mega election year kicked off with contests for the mayor and municipal council in the 150,000-resident city. As the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has enjoyed a virtually constant lead in national polling over the past year and a half, many expect that 2024 will bring a considerable shift to the right in the Alpine Republic and perhaps even its first FPÖ chancellor. In the first round of elections, however, the party with most to celebrate certainly wasn’t the FPÖ.

Under an electoral list name KPÖ+ (the acronym PLUS stands for Independent Solidarity Platform), the Communist Party of Austria scored 23.1 percent of the vote in the city council election, a sixfold increase in its 2019 score of 3.7 percent. This was enough for a second-place finish — in front of the conservative People’s Party of Austria (ÖVP, 20.8 percent), the Greens (12.7 percent), the far-right FPÖ (10.8 percent), and several minor parties. Only the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) managed to finish ahead of the Communists, earning 25.6 percent. Yet the Social Democrats’ victory was tempered by the fact that their vote share fell slightly from 2019.

In Salzburg, the mayor is not elected by the city council, as is the norm in many other Austrian cities, but directly chosen by citizens on the same day as the city council. In the mayoral election, the KPÖ also secured second place: with 28 percent, the Communists’ Kay-Michael Dankl finished narrowly behind SPÖ deputy mayor Bernhard Auinger, who won 29.4 percent.

Since no candidate won over 50 percent, a runoff election is now slated for March 24. Auinger should have an edge here, as voters from the conservative camp are closer to the SPÖ than KPÖ, at least on paper. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate Dankl’s chances: the Communist enjoys an extremely high approval rating, and the KPÖ has repeatedly proven that it is capable of winning votes away from all other parties and mobilizing nonvoters.

An Established Brand

The KPÖ’s enormous vote increase is certainly cause for celebration in the party. However, it is not cause for surprise. In fact, it comes on the heels of two massive breakthroughs over the last three years. In fall 2021, the Communists defied all expectations to win the city council election in Graz, the capital of the state of Styria, where they now govern in a coalition with the Greens and the SPÖ. In the meantime, their popularity has only continued to grow in the 300,000-resident city. Graz mayor Elke Kahr — the only Communist in charge of a major European city — was even named “world’s best mayor” for 2023.

The second breakthrough occurred last spring in the Salzburg state parliament election (the state of Salzburg shares a name with its capital city). In contrast to Graz and Styria, where the KPÖ had at least built itself into a strong oppositional force through decades of grassroots work, the Communists at the time had only one elected official in the entire state of Salzburg — the city councilmember Kay-Michael Dankl. After receiving a mandate in 2019 with 3.7 percent of the vote, he decided to pursue a similar approach to what his comrades in Styria had been doing. Along these lines, he spent the next years focusing on a handful of issues that immediately affect the day-to-day lives of working people — with a particular emphasis on the question of affordable housing.

Yet rather than just use their platform to highlight a specific set of issues, KPÖ politicians in both Styria and Salzburg practice a form of politics that emphasizes face-to-face contact with constituents. To this end, they hold regular office hours where they point people toward relevant social services, assist them with bureaucratic matters such as filling out application forms for welfare programs and even provide those in financial emergencies with direct aid from a fund to which all KPÖ elected officials donate a portion of their monthly salaries. Based on this practice, the KPÖ managed an unprecedented jump from 0.4 percent of the vote in the 2018 Salzburg state parliament election to 11.7 percent in 2023. In the capital, the Communists even earned 21.5 percent, finishing behind only the ÖVP.

Setting the Tone

In a redux of last year, the Salzburg Communists focused their 2024 municipal election campaign largely on housing, the issue that has become the party’s political trademark. On January 27, they launched their bid by organizing a protest in the working-class district of Liefering against the pending demolition of the Südtiroler Siedlung, a large complex of apartments rented on an open-ended basis at inexpensive rates.

While party activists formed a human chain around a building, Dankl gave a speech criticizing the lack of affordable housing in Salzburg, Austria’s second–most expensive city for renters. This lack is “not a law of nature,” Dankl asserted, but the result of real estate speculation encouraged by the established parties.

Neither the ruling nor other oppositional parties had any substantive rebuttal. Instead, they declared the KPÖ “populist” (as if this label means much to most people) and tried to stoke fear of the specter of communism (as if one should be more afraid of the c-word than the rising costs of living).

Yet entirely in keeping with their formula for success in recent years, the Communists did not let their opponents’ rhetorical mudslinging distract them from the actual issues. With impressive message discipline, they continued to concentrate on demands such as a rent cap and increased public housing — and thereby succeeded in controlling the political discourse. With the pending runoff election for the city’s new mayor, it appears this dynamic will continue for another two weeks.

A Danger for the Right

It is doubtful that the results in Salzburg will put a damper on the FPÖ’s soaring poll numbers. Yet even though the most recent KPÖ success will not stop the advance of the Right by itself, it still gives cause for hope.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent explosion in the cost of living across much of Europe, the FPÖ has consistently been polling at about 30 percent nationally. Nevertheless, on Sunday, it only managed to improve on its performance in the 2019 Salzburg city council election by slightly over 2 percent. This owes to the remarkable showing by the Communists, for with the exception of the KPÖ, all other parties saw their share of the vote either stagnate or shrink.

The KPÖ’s achievement in Salzburg demonstrates that the anger large swathes of the population justifiably feel at the political status quo does not have to feed into resentment and reaction. Rather, it can be channeled toward solidarity if parties address everyday concerns while proving themselves credible.

Establishing credibility is generally a long-term process — in Graz, the KPÖ only managed to take power thirty years after introducing its grassroots model. However, the party’s recent gains in both the state and the city of Salzburg illustrate that the Graz model can bear fruit much more quickly, in the right circumstances.

The Salzburg Communists have certainly benefitted from the approval ratings and publicity of their comrades in Graz. Yet the decisive factor on Sunday was the resolute team around Dankl, which organizes the community work of the party and ran a highly professional election campaign.

A key aspect of this campaign was that it involved party members across Austria, organizing for them to travel to Salzburg for so-called action weeks where they worked at information booths, handed out flyers on the street, and put up posters. In the coming years, if these volunteers resolutely pursue the approach of their Graz and Salzburg comrades in their own towns and cities, the KPÖ will continue to notch victories — and cut the ground from under the Right’s feet.