Thursday, September 1, 2011

Power in Paradise: The 2010 Vienna Elections

By Ulrike Kruh
August 2011

The Mercer 2010 Quality of Living Ranking shows that the Austrian capital of Vienna (population: 1.7 million) is the world’s best place to live. Critics remark that the criteria for this survey are chosen for the information of ex-pats and do not focus on the life of the average Viennese working person. Nonetheless, Viennese politicians do attribute this result to their policies and claim credit for much of it.

According to Eurostat, Austria (and the Netherlands) enjoy the lowest unemployment rate in the EU. Vienna has a different structure than the rest of the country. It is estimated that 40% of the city’s population was not born in Austria; German is not their mother tongue. In the capital, 82% work in the service sector, nearly 18% in productive industries and a few have agricultural jobs.

Vienna is different

The City of Vienna has been ruled by the Social Democrats for nearly 100 years, the exception being the period of Austrian fascism in the mid-1930s and the Nazi regime from 1938 to 1945. In 1994, Michael Häupl, a biologist by profession, took over the mayor’s job from Helmut Zilk, a master of public communications. (After his death it was revealed that Zilk had been an informer for communist Czechoslovakia when still a journalist). His successor Häupl has been serving for the past 16 years, and is the mayor with the longest period in office since 1945. Considering the effects of the economic crisis in 2008, the public anxiously awaited the results of the capital’s elections. In 2009 the Viennese unemployment rate was 7.5% (using the EU calculation method LFC); in 2010 it rose slightly.

The elections took place on October 10, 2010. Häupl and his Social Democrats won. 67% of the electorate voted, which is a rather high turnout compared to other Western European city elections. Seven parties and some minor groups took part in the election. The major parties are the Social Democrats (SPÖ) (44.3%, 49 seats in the City Council – they lost 7 seats compared to the previous elections and thus their former absolute majority), followed by the right-wing Freedom Party FPÖ (25.77%, 14 seats), the conservatives ÖVP (13.9%, 13 seats in the City Council – lost 5 seats compared to previous result), the Green Party DIE GRÜNEN (12.6%, 11 seats – they lost 3), and the communists KPÖ (1.1%).

The big winner was the FPÖ. It came in second place, while the “usual suspects” – the Social Democrats and conservatives – had considerable losses. Every fourth Viennese voter wanted the FPÖ to gain influence, the party which became internationally famous under its former leader Jörg Haider.

In order to know more about the sociological background of this alarming result, the Forum Soziale Gerechtigkeit (“Forum for Social Justice”, a club of left-wing journalists, intellectuals and activists) invited Günther Ogris, – the head of the SORA Institute for Social Research and Consulting, which specialises in election analyses – to talk on the topic. He studied sociological statistics in the UK, and his institute does consulting for Austrian politicians; he a political advisor for the SPÖ.

The following is a translation of my transcript of Günther Ogris’s talk on October 27, 2010 at the Amerling-Haus in Vienna:


Michale Häupl
From 2001 to 2005 the FPÖ stood between 3 and 5%; during the summer of 2005 they reached 14%; in 2010 they got nearly 26%.

In the working-class quarters Floridsdorf, Donaustadt, Simmering and Favoriten the “reds” (i.e. the Social Democrats) managed to keep their lead but with great difficulty, with the so-called fascist party (in the words of The New York Times), the FPÖ, trailing it closely.

The FPÖ was not elected mainly by the young, but rather by older, socially and politically depressed working-class men. The term “depressed” here indicates the lack of perspectives which these members of the working class now have for their children. These men are former skilled workers who are now downwardly mobile. Until the age of 35 or 37 they enjoyed good, steadily increasing salaries, but then this stopped and there was no possibility for them to advance further. From 1970 to 2010 the female work force increased by one million. Viennese women do not have a firm affiliation with a single party.

In absolute numbers the result of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) remained stationary: they received 322,000 votes. The SPÖ lost the votes of working men without a high-school diploma, the Austrian-born working class, the former political home base of the SPÖ.

The ÖVP (conservatives, Christian Democrats) lost men over 60 to the FPÖ, but gained among younger women. (This party with its strong Catholic background has always had a hard time in the capital, while having considerable cultural influence in the Austrian provinces).

The Greens were not voted by elderly and retired people over 60. Greens and “reds” were equally popular among the young voters. Students voted for both the SPÖ and the Green Party. From this point of view it is definitely politically unwise on the part of the SPÖ to reduce the university budget. There are 150,000 voters in Vienna who have a professional relationship with the universities, and their number could also be decisive. But this important and big group has been shunned until now.

Immigrants as a core group

Contrary to common belief, the new core group of the Social Democratic party consists of the immigrants, the “new Austrians”. In recent years, naturalisations have been reduced due to fear generated by the political right – something which is extremely counterproductive for the SPÖ.

Strangely, there are several new groups in the working population, which have not yet been recognised by the Social Democrats as decisive electoral forces. For example, there are 400,000 people in Austria working for only 3 big food distributors; they occupy logistical jobs which cannot be exported to China. It is interesting that the ÖGB, the Austrian confederation of unions, have not yet understood this important political force.

Interpreting the results of the upper-class residential areas with a relatively good outcome for the SPÖ, it can be said that the party has become more “bourgeois”. It has clearly arrived in the middle classes, a development comparable to the Labour Party in the UK.


Günther Ogris suggested the following five conclusions from the results of the 2010 Vienna elections.
  • The children of the working class must receive more educational and job opportunities. As the society of information is a project of the future, politics has to promote and use it wisely.
  • The political work in the public housing projects of Vienna (the famous Gemeindebauten mostly built by renowned architects at the beginning of the 20th century) in working-class neighbourhoods has to be intensified.
  • A closer cooperation between the party and the unions should be encouraged. It is not enough to offer legal courses or courses in presentation and negotiation techniques. The work councils have to be able to develop political thinking and consciousness.
  • Half of the electorate is being neglected: women. Compared to the 1970s the number of working women has increased tremendously, but many of them are stuck in low paid or part-time jobs (the average female salary in Austria is 27% lower than the average male salary, among EU-states only Malta has a bigger salary difference between the sexes). This means a big task and a lot of work ahead for the Austrian Unions!
  • The process of integration of immigrants has to be advanced. The number of their naturalisations has to be increased, as new Austrians are often Social Democratic voters.
Any evaluation of election results has to distinguish between sociological causes and short-term motives for the decision of the individual voter. Often these decisions are influenced heavily by the media. Policy makers have to know that the understanding of texts by voters has become more important.

The mostly nationalist voters of the Freedom Party FPÖ have a completely different, one might even call it skewed, perspective on politics. Their understanding of politics and what it can and should do is contradictory.

The main problem of the Social Democrats seems to be the lack of a consistent narrative and the obvious lack of a well-defined political aim.

The left is not able to explain the process of globalisation to the working population; they are still unable to define their project for the future and to explain this project to the electorate. Furthermore, the idea of the modern society of information has not yet arrived in Austrian politics.

As a whole, Ogris’s outlook on Austrian politics is rather bleak. As his conclusions are based on solid data, we are well advised to take them seriously.

The political outcome

As the Social Democrats failed to gain an absolute majority, they formed a coalition with the weaker Green Party. Their leader Maria Vassilakou became Vice-Mayor. She is a Greek immigrant, a linguist and now in charge of traffic and of urban development. It is the first time that a new Austrian woman has held such a high post in Austrian politics, a considerable step forward. But now everybody is asking: Why did the Greens stop criticising Vienna’s environmental policies? Have they been tamed or even silenced?

Austrian politicians who want to institute changes have their work cut out for them, as the next elections (for the Governor of the province of Lower Austria) will only take place in 2013. As in most European countries, food prices have gone up in Austria. Gas prices have risen in Vienna by 9% recently. Occasionally rumours appear in the press that Mayor Häupl might not serve a full term because of health problems not uncommon in a wine-producing country. In this case, he would be succeeded by Renate Brauner, who would become Vienna’s first female mayor. If cleverly governed, Vienna will continue to be a great place to live, hopefully not just for rich ex-pats.

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