“The Austrian Social Democratic party has achieved its worst result in the history of free Austrian elections”. This gloomy assessment has opened every post-election analysis since 2008 from Section 8 — a group within the SPÖ dedicated to reforming it from within. And, with some fudging of the decimal places, it still holds up. In last week’s general election, 58% voted national-conservative, only 36% for the centre left: a disaster from a progressive perspective and a postwar record.
So why was Christian Kern, chancellor and SPÖ leader, greeted with applause when he delivered his concession speech at the party’s headquarters? For starters, we all expected worse. And moreover, in the final days of the campaign, Kern showed himself to be a real fighter. When the tabloid newspaper, Österreich, launched an all-out campaign against him, plastering the front pages with leaked campaign documents and gossip about his wife’s business dealings, he fought back, cutting off advertising and interviews.
“And even if it cost us a few seats in parliament, I’d do it again,” he insisted on election night – a line that earnt him applause from the party faithful. Towards the tabloid press, which has played a leading role in poisoning the discourse over migration and refugees, the SPÖ elite has long chosen accommodation over confrontation, channelling millions of euros worth of public and quasi-public money into advertising with the big three papers in the hopes of better coverage.
Critical voices within the party, including Section 8, have been urging an end to this practice for years, and Kern showed that it could be done. In Vienna, despite these free newspapers littering every metro seat, the SPÖ even managed to gain votes compared with its 2013 performance.
And yet there’s more to brood over than celebrate in those Vienna results. Red gains once again came from the more prosperous and educated inner-city districts, while we lost ground in the suburbs. Taking votes from greens and left-liberals might provide short-term advantages, but it does little to build a progressive parliamentary majority.
Among blue-collar workers, the SPÖ no longer plays in the same league as the far-right Freedom party, who almost doubled their 2013 vote share, growing from 33% to 59% while the SPÖ fell from 24% to 19%. In the countryside, the Social Democrats face irrelevance, and no successful strategy has been developed to fight back.
But if a progressive majority is to be possible, such voters can’t be written off as a lost cause – and the SPÖ is the only party with a realistic shot at bringing them back into the fold, as the experiment of the Pilz List this election cycle made clear. This breakaway party, formed by a founding member of the Greens, pulled most of its voters from the Social Democrats and the Greens. Despite its best attempt, the party found very few takers among former supporters of the rightwing populist Team Stronach (the now disbanded one-man party surrounding industrialist Frank Stronach) or non-voters.
Yet it is precisely these non-voters with whom the SPÖ had an astonishing degree of success, with 156,000 former abstainers switching to the Social Democrats this election – one of the most noteworthy shifts to be found in the post-election analysis.
This is the transformation Christian Kern delivered, particularly in the final weeks of the campaign. Facing a hostile media environment, the SPÖ’s only strengths were its defence of the social democratic model and the loyal party membership. Those were the assets Kern turned to, that saved the party from irrelevance and that truly earned that election night applause. We can only wonder what might have been, had the party not screwed up so royally the first half of the campaign.
But an embarrassing campaign performance didn’t stop the membership from ringing doorbells, handing out flyers, or getting the message out on social media. In the coming months, the party will need to build on this base. With the conservative and far right occupying 58% of the seats in parliament, we will need to support civil society to defend progressive values.
The conservative ÖVP and the FPÖ have converged around an almost identical set of policy positions. Any hope of achieving the key pledges of the SPÖ manifesto – the reintroduction of inheritance tax, shifting the burden of social contributions from labour to capital, the expansion of day care, incentives for hiring older workers – is unlikely to come from clever tactics or attempts to work in coalition with either of these parties.
A quick look across the English Channel at the Liberal Democrats is a stark reminder that a confident opposition party can have more power than one in coalition government under hostage conditions. As long as the SPÖ cultivates a convincing answer to these important social questions, five years in opposition could provide the opportunity for regeneration – while taking part in a coalition under siege conditions can only end badly.
That said, there’s no guarantee that a period of opposition will automatically lead to renewal. It certainly didn’t last time, when six years of ÖVP/FPÖ rule did little to interrupt the Social Democrats’ slide into irrelevance. Section 8 was formed precisely in response to this failure. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.