Opinion | The Troubled State of the Austrian Left

With the Greens absorbed in internecine warfare, the prospects for a progressive left agenda look increasingly dim

With just a month until the parliamentary elections, the Greens are in disarray.

Since the first of the year, their support has dropped by half in public polling. In May, they exchanged one unpopular leader for another, swapping out Eva Glawischnig for EU parliamentarian Ulrike Lunacek. Two months before, the Young Greens, ejected from the party on March 30, teamed up with the communists in a joint list, KPÖ PLUS. Worst of all, the outspoken defense spokesman Peter Pilz marched off to form his own faction, Liste Pilz.

Pilz has been a vital part of the national conversation for 30 years, but he should know that, for the left, factionalism is a curse. The dispersal of what is already a small voter bloc – female, urban, college educated – is like fine sugar dissolving into water. Currently, the remaining Greens are polling between six and seven percent and Pilz four to five. It is not inconceivable that if the communists and cabaret artist-turned politician Roland Düringer also pick up votes, no single party will be strong enough to make it over the threshold. In the October elections, the left could disappear without a trace.

Whatever one’s political leanings, the decline and fall of the Greens as a national political force should be mourned. Consider what the Greens have achieved in Vienna since 2010, from the €365 per year annual pass for public transportation to the creation of more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly urban spaces. A small party with outsized influence on the political culture, nationally they helped push the Social Democrats toward marriage equality, persisted on the botched Eurofighter procurement, and have been consistently clear on the threat posed by the far-right Freedom Party.

Indeed, now more so than ever, Austria needs a strong political Left to act as ballast in a nation drifting right, particularly on issues like European integration, Islam and the migration crisis; to be the progressive voice on social, economic and ecological issues. That role is never going to be filled by the Neos, Irmgard Griss notwithstanding, for liberalism in Austria remains a weak political force. While part of a progressive alliance on some issues, the Neos’ social liberalism goes hand-in-hand with ÖVP-lite promises to cut taxes and shrink the state.

Progressives, Unite!

Historically, the engine for progressive economic and social change in Austria has been the Social Democrats, improving conditions for a constellation of constituencies and institutions, while occupying ground closer to the political center. But in this election, SPÖ Chancellor Christian Kern is playing a very dangerous game, having indicated that the FPÖ could be an acceptable coalition partner. While this move has the potential to undercut the far right, it may end up weakening the Social Democrats too, depriving voters of a reason to support them while lending a veneer of legitimacy to Heinz-Christian Strache. Such a scenario makes a Schwarz-Blau government more likely, cutting the Social Democrats out altogether.

Thus, only the Greens can act as the uncompromising, untainted critic, the clean and clear alternative to a potential Kurz-Strache horror show. Without them, no one remains to question how the Social Democrats or the People’s Party could govern in a coalition with race-baiters and Kellernazis. No one remains to call for compassion as the tone of discussion around immigrants and asylum seekers coarsens. No one remains to ask Sebastian Kurz what’s really “new” about his new People’s Party, about his railing against Islamic kindergartens, his proposed €12-14 billion in tax cuts, or his refusal to allow his deputies a free vote on marriage equality.

The left has splintered and its loss will be ours to bear.

Historically, the engine for progressive economics and social change in Austria has been the Social Democrats, improving living conditions for everyone.

Liam Hoare
A freelance writer on politics and literature based in Vienna. He is the Europe editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Slate, The Forward and Tablet.

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