By Satyaki Chakraborty
A new left wing wind is blowing in many parts of Europe and this has been reflected in the outcome of the national and local levels of elections in Germany, Norway, Belgium and now in Austria. On Sunday, voters of Austria’s second largest city after Vienna, Graz gave an unprecedented mandate to the Communist Party of Austria (KPO) in terms of 29 per cent of votes polled, thereby facilitating the process of election of a communist Mayor of the city.
Austria is being ruled by a hardcore rightist party and Vienna which was called ‘Red Vienna” in post war years, is now the citadel of the conservatives. But the Austrian communists as also other left wing socialists worked hard in the city of Graz through their services at the local level and succeeded in giving a big rebuff to the traditional conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP). In 2021 Graz is called ‘Red City’ Which Vienna was at the prime day of the left wing politics in Austria.
The KPÖ’s striking success in this city, at odds with its marginal presence in national politics — owes to years of community engagement rooted in a dedicated class politics. Its progress wouldn’t have been possible without activists like thirty-four-year-old Robert Krotzer, who was second on the KPÖ list in this election. In 2017, he became the youngest person ever to be elected to the Graz city senate, since then serving as head of the Department of Health and of Caregiving at the Department of Social Services.
In a recent interview to the US magazine Jacobin, Robert Krotzer who pioneered the victory for KPO in Graz, the main city of Styria province explained that the success in the elections in Graz has to do with a political orientation going back to the early 1990s — a time of profound crisis for the Communist movement. Back then, one of the mottos of the KPÖ Styria was “A useful party for everyday life and for the grand objectives of the labour movement.” In line with this maxim, the party pursued a highly concrete politics, especially for tenants.
In particular, [former KPÖ politician and Graz party chair] Ernest Kaltenegger did tremendous work in Graz, establishing for himself a very positive reputation among the population. Kaltenegger was always there to help others and lend an ear to their problems. To this day, people still tell stories about him even fixing things in their apartments. But he also politicized the issue of housing and that helped the KPO in getting political mileage for the party in the elections.
According to Krotzer, a major campaign against high rent prices in public housing followed several years later. At the time, even in public housing, it wasn’t unusual for people to pay up to 55 percent of their income on rent. So the KPÖ introduced a bill in the city council stipulating that no one living in public housing would have to pay more than a third of their income in rent. Like so many other bills from the KPÖ, it was rejected by all the other parties. Subsequently, the KPÖ gathered signatures, particularly in public housing and together with tenants. The party then presented the city council with a “Petition in Accordance with Styrian Popular Law” containing seventeen thousand signatures and reintroduced the bill. This time, it passed unanimously.
The following election in 1998 marked the KPÖ’s first major breakthrough at the polls with 7.9 percent of the vote. Kaltenegger was given the Department of Housing by the ruling parties, who expected him to fail in this role. But things turned out differently. In fact, he was able to get a fair amount done, such as make sure that each public housing unit had its own toilet and bathroom. And then, in the 2003 election, the party achieved 20.8 percent.
The KPO leader explained that all this shows that left-wing politics requires endurance and grassroots work. It also shows that parliamentary functionaries can use extra-parliamentary pressure to push things forward that would otherwise not be possible under the given power relations.
One of the most enduring achievements of the KPÖ came in 2004 when it blocked the privatization of Graz’s public-housing stock. At the time, the [conservative] ÖVP, the SPÖ [Social Democratic Party of Austria], and indeed all other parties on the city council agreed on privatization. Sadly, around the same time, a “red-red” government in Berlin [a coalition between the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the predecessor to Die Linke] privatized apartments owned by the city.
Krotzer mentioned that even though KPO was never one of the ruling coalition parties, the party held offices in the city executive since 1998. This is because of the proportional representation system, which allocates city senate seats on the basis of the parties’ vote shares. Currently, party chair, Elke Kahr, leads the Department of Roads and the Department of Transportation Planning, and he is responsible for Health and Caregiving. Both of them had successes in there areas — in spite of the difficult conditions of the past four and a half years under the right-wing coalition government between the ÖVP and the FPÖ [Freedom Party of Austria, far-right].
KPO administration has built new bicycle paths and improved public transportation by expanding the tram network and creating new bus lines. And the party minister has introduced the so-called Graz Care Model, according to which care-dependent elders receive allowances from the city so that they can be cared for at home and don’t have to move into nursing homes.
Krotzer himself is in charge of the health department and during covid pandemic, his remarkable work has been appreciated by the people of the city Graz. He mentioned urban health policy with regards to the COVID crisis means, above all, contact tracing, or following and breaking chains of infection. This is, of course, an enormous task for any public health agency. In February 2020, the Graz Office of Epidemiology consisted of exactly two and a half positions. By November 2020, two hundred people were working there.
The KPO leader said that KPO believes in Marxism Leninism but the ministers do not preach socialism in one city or something like a municipal transition to socialism. But in general, I he is convinced that left-wing politics needs to be developed from below. And that means establishing roots in at the level of the municipality, or even the shop floor, and being in constant contact with people. It’s important to engage in areas where you can show concretely that you’re a useful force. And workers’ parties can learn a lot from this kind of engagement.
‘In recent decades, the Left may have neglected this insight somewhat. People have thought we have the sophisticated texts, we have the volumes of Marx and Engels and Lenin, and with these we will be able to deal with the world. But only through constant exchange with people can you find out where the real problems are. If you and your comrades want to work together to change and improve people’s conditions, this knowledge is central’, the KPO leader said.
According to him, there are various examples of successful left-wing politics on the municipal or shop-floor level — for example, in Alentejo in Portugal, where there are communities that have been administered by the Portuguese Communist Party since the 1974 Carnation Revolution, or the [Communist-affiliated trade union organization] PAME in Greece.
An exciting new development is the success of the Workers’ Party of Belgium. On the basis of their long-standing roots in shop-floor organizing, this party managed to become a force in municipal politics before making the big leap onto the national stage in 2019. This achievement is really quite impressive. But it was also developed on a small scale. It certainly wouldn’t have been possible without local roots.
Austrian Communist leader’s observations after success in elections, should be an eye opener for all leftwing activists who are working at base level. Only hard work through articulating the people’s demands at the grass roots level, shop floor or municipal, can build the base for growth of left wing politics. It is a long process but such sustained work only pays dividends at the national level. (IPA Service)