Is Austria moving towards being a society without solidarity?

In 10 days Austrians will elect a new parliament. Eva Fleischer, professor at the Management Centre Innsbruck,reflects on the election campaign and its meaning regarding solidarity in Austria.

On October, 15 elections will take place in Austria. Late in the campaign, electoral programs are still being presented. It seems as if the content is merely accidental, only the SPÖ had already presented an extensive program at an early stage. Till now the public debate, as well as the campaigns of the parties seemed to focus merely on candidate lists, on the creation of “movements” by individuals, like the transformation of the Austrian People’s Party into the “List Sebastian Kurz – The new Austrian People’s Party”. Interestingly, justice and fairness are mentioned explicitly in the programs of the biggest parties. However, there are extreme differences in the understanding of what “justice” or “fairness” means to the different parties. In this article, I want to explore those meanings and relate them to the issue of care. Before scrutinizing those conceptions of justice and fairness, I’ll give a short introduction into the current political situation in Austria.

From parties to movements
The context of this election campaign is a special one. In 2013 the latest election resulted in a coalition between the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ, 26.8%) and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP, 24%). The Freedom Party of Austria reached 20.5%, the Greens 12.4%, Team Stronach 5.73% and the New Austria (NEOs) got 4.96% of the votes. Over the past two years, however, a number of changes occurred in the political landscape:

In 2016, the presidential election brought, after a second round, the first green president to Austria, Alexander van der Bellen. The Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer was only narrowly defeated after an anti-immigrant, right-wing populist campaign. Norbert Hofer didn’t win, but the election revealed two phenomena. First, a growing resistance against the alliance between the Social Democrats and the People’s Party which seems to inhibit major decisions on issues like education and tax policy. Second, a high degree of acceptance of populist anti-immigrant, anti-elitist far-right ideology within the population.

After the resignation of the conservative ÖVP party head Reinhold Mitterlehner in May 2017 the Minister of Foreign Affairs, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, was elected the new leader of the ÖVP. The party accepted his demand for much more power than former leaders of the party. Following that Kurz announced the creation of an independent (but ÖVP-backed) list for the elections under the name “List Sebastian Kurz – The new People’s Party”, which would be open to experts without ÖVP membership.

The Green Party leader Eva Glawischnig also resigned in May. The Green Party now has two leaders, the party head Ingrid Felipe, and Ulrike Lunacek (a Member of European Parliament) as the party’s candidate for the 2017 elections. In July Peter Pilz, a founding member and long-time MP of the Green Party started his list in the election (Peter Pilz’s List) after not having been elected to his preferred place on the party list for the elections.

Another list was announced by a former Freedom Party Member, Karl Schnell: “Free List Austria – List Karl Schnell”. Team Stronach, a populist right-wing party, which was founded in 2012 by the millionaire Frank Stronach, will not contest the elections due to his stop on all financial support to the party. Another party “The Whites, ” considers itself also as a people’s movement instead of a party. It refuses to publish a particular party program. Their main issue is to strengthen direct democracy.

What we can see is not only an increasing number of parties but also the attempt to create a distance to traditional politics by renaming parties as “movements”. Calling a party a movement is especially cynical with regards to the List Sebastian Kurz as it is apparent that Kurz uses not only the money but also the structure of the People’s Party. And looking at the polls, this strategy seems to be highly successful. Kurz was already the most popular Austrian politician, but now the popularity of the ÖVP rocketed from somewhere between 20 and 25 percent to around 30-35 percent, and it seems quite clear that the most likely coalition emerging from the elections will be a coalition between the ÖVP and the Freedom Party of Austria. In consequence, the right wing will take over.

Kurz is spreading his messages by performing a sort of “one man show”. He has taken a sharp anti-refugee stance in recent months that contrast to statements at the beginning of his political career, when a sentence like “the Islam is a part of Austria” was possible. In the meantime, he was active in closing the so-called “Balkan route”, made possible due to his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Kurz is not using the aggressive tone of the Freedom Party, but his goals regarding this issue are largely the same.

New justice and responsibility
One core message of Kurz’ program is: “New justice and responsibility”. Justice in this program has one single meang, to perform fairness. Perspectives of needs-based justice, distributive justice or equal opportunities are not relevant anymore. “Justice must be the result of labor and not of redistribution” is not only addressed to asylum seekers or immigrants, but to everyone who is in need. That means that for example the means-tested minimum income shall be reduced to 1,500 Euros per family no matter how many members a family has, expressing a total disregard for real needs, especially for families with children. This will result in people being dependent on alms form organisations such as soup kitchens. On top of this, recognized refugees and persons granted subsidiary protection shall only receive 560 Euros per month, they (and every other non-Austrian) have to wait five years (and within those five years they have to prove one-year full-time paid work) until they are allowed social benefits. The program is vague on whether Kurz refers only to the means-tested minimum income or also to social insurance. There are massive legal concerns about these proposals, both by the EU Status Guidelines, according to which EU citizens and refugees should be treated equally, but also because of the constitutional principle of equal treatment. The FPÖ with party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has problems to present itself as the true right party since Kurz takes stands so extreme that Strache accused Kurz of stealing his campaign ideas on immigration and economy.

I’ll get what I’m entitled to
While Kurz and Strache focus on immigration and asylum issues, the SPÖ with Austrian chancellor Christian Kern tries to set a different discourse on justice. “I’ll get what I’m entitled to” was launched as the very essence of the campaign. The focus lies on distributive justice, mainly tax justice, proposing inheritance and gift taxes (Austria doesn’t have any!), fewer taxes on paid work and pensions, fighting tax evasion of large enterprises, restriction of manager wages. Employment should be adequately paid, in consequence, a minimum wage of 1,500 Euros is demanded. The program stresses the need for a solidarity-based welfare state, but the slogan mentioned above addresses the individual feeling of not getting paid enough, not being valued enough, of envy, not of solidarity. It’s about me, just me and my needs, not about society and the needs of a community.

In detail, there are interesting ideas about care in the SPO program, e. g. elderly care is seen as a responsibility of the state which is quite revolutionary in Austria, where mainly female relatives do most of the elderly care. At this point around the half of the frail elderly are supported only by their loved ones and one-third by their relatives in combination with mobile nursing services which are limited to three hours per day. In the program, unpaid female care work is named as such, and new models of elderly care based on paid care by community carers are proposed. The responsibility of the state is seen not only to be the establishment of new structures of community care like the (Dutch) Buurtzorg model but also to be taking on of half of the financial load. Yet, neither care or unemployment nor ecology and climate change are the core topics in the election debate; it’s immigration and asylum, often mixed up.

Austria’s economic situation is quite sound, with economic growth and a falling unemployment rate as well as a lowering number of people at risk of poverty. Still, there are social-economic problems which should be tackled: the pension system is costly and creates more and more poverty among old people, especially women and migrants; the gap between wealthy and poor people gets bigger and bigger; the educational system needs vigorous reforms to make educational success independent from class; there is a care-crisis. No doubt, there are unfairness and injustice in our country, but it seems as if the feelings of fear and injustice are all attributed to refugees and migrants, they are made responsible for every problem of our welfare state and to be the only ones who are cared for without having to do something in return. This discourse is very dangerous as it covers up the fact that we all are in need of care during our whole life and that we are dependent on others and not always able to pay back. Sadly, this aspect is continually ignored during the election campaign, and there is little hope that after the elections this mindset will change.

Eva Fleischer
Innsbruck, september 2017

Eva Fleischer is professor of social welfare at the Management Center Innsbruck MCI of the Leopold Franzens University Innsbruck, Austria ( . More about Ms.Fleischer:


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