Two months on
What has happened to Austrian resistance?
By Kevin Ovenden
THE 300,000-strong demonstration against the far right in Austria took place two months ago this Wednesday. It was a clear indication of the depth of opposition in Austria to the participation of the far right Freedom Party in government. That mood remains. But so does the coalition government of the Tories and the Freedom Party. The responsibility for the government's continued lease of life lies four square with the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SP...), equivalent to Britain's Labour Party. It is the largest party in Austria. Its leaders attended February's mass demonstration and its organisation in the trade unions played a central role in building it.
But since then they have refused to tap the anti-government mood and call the action which could force the Freedom Party out of office. SP... leader Alfred Gusenbauer announced two weeks ago that he would judge the government on its "behaviour over the next year". That was a clear signal that he did not expect the government to fall. He said the SP... would play the role of "constructive opposition".
Worse still, he attended round-table talks with the government to discuss how to end Austria's diplomatic isolation within the European Union. The leaders of the significant Green Party have behaved in a similar fashion. Gusenbauer's major initiative against the Freedom Party over the last month has been to apologise for the SP... allowing former active Nazis into the party in the 1950s and to challenge Freedom Party leader Jrg Haider to do the same. Hitler-praising Haider refused.
"Gusenbauer's manoeuvring has created enormous confusion among workers," says Kerstin from the Austrian socialist paper Linkswende. "People were asked to march and are now being told to behave like a loyal opposition. There is no clear lead." Austria's trade union leaders have behaved little better. The government wants to launch harsh austerity measures and a sweeping privatisation programme.
These threats have generated opposition among even those workers who were taken in by the Freedom Party's anti-immigrant scapegoating. The unions have called a series of mass meetings, which are effectively three-hour strikes, in response. Last week meetings took place in Austria Telecom. There were also meetings of teachers, civil servants and council workers.
But the trade union leaders' message is to look to negotiations with the government rather than strikes. Despite this there is still a mood among many workers to take the government on. A recent demonstration against privatisation by 2,000 caretakers called for strike action and solidarity from other workers. There is debate in workplaces about the way forward. The government would like to launch a full scale Thatcherite assault on workers' living standards. However, it fears the response from workers.
So it announces attacks and then hesitates. It said it wanted to raise the age for early retirement by two years, and then scaled the increase back to 18 months. Such wobbling has convinced the trade union leaders that there is room to negotiate. It has also, rightly, led many workers to see that the government is not an unstoppable juggernaut. And it has left big business impatient with the government for not pushing deep cuts through quickly enough.
But the free market programme is still the most severe in recent Austrian history. And that has forced the leaders of the trade unions and SP... to call further protests. They are mobilising for the traditional May Day march and for a demonstration on 20 May to mark the first 100 days of the government. They see the protests as bargaining chips in further talks with the government and business.
The space for such negotiations is narrowing as the attacks on the welfare state get closer. The greatest success of the mass protest in February was to lift workers' confidence. Breaking the government depends increasingly on whether those workers and students who have the most confidence are drawn together as an organised force to push their leaders to do more than call symbolic protests.