Although Greens in Austria have made considerable electoral breakthroughs, the recent municipal elections in Vienna showed that a considerable portion of this support is liable to abandon Greens when circumstances change and the discourse becomes more polarised. If Greens are to cement their place in the political landscape, they need to consolidate this support base and expand it in a way that is sustainable.
Early this summer, I went to the office of the local Green party (Die Grünen Wien), in the impressive town hall of Vienna, for a meeting. A graph on the wall of our meeting room caught my attention: 14 % plus “ok”, 16% plus “good”. I thought this a little bit overly optimistic at the time, but then there were good reasons for being optimistic: The Green party had dominated the coalition government of the last five years in media presence and managed to implement, even as the smaller partner, nearly all their major projects. Maria Vassilakou, controversial vice mayor and top candidate for the upcoming election, had a lot of devoted political enemies, but the successes of her projects as a city council for traffic and planning gave her a clear profile and recognition far beyond the green electorate. Especially the annual ticket for public transport for 365 Euros, which led to an impressive 100% increase in sold tickets, the very controversial parking management, highly popular only after it was introduced, and the even more controversial transformation of the Mariahilferstraße became permanent publicity for green politics. Even better: the massive resistance and negative campaigning of our adversaries provided a lot of media presence and all those projects, although not revolutionary by themselves, became part of our green brand. Today, not even the formerly most zealous adversaries propose to reverse those projects.
Over the last twelve months polls showed mostly 14, 15, sometimes 16 percent and success was in the air. It seemed reasonable to make plans for the continuation of the ecological transformation and the implementation of green ideas not only for traffic and planning, but also for education.
But then something happened that seemingly nobody had expected, although it had already happened twice before: The right wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) called a “duel” for the town hall, presenting the vote as a contest between the two major parties – and the media, along with the shrinking Social Democrats (SPÖ), couldn’t have been happier about this foreseeable “twist”. Fuelled by the hysteria over the refugee crisis and the rise of the right wing party in the region of Upper Austria only a week before the Viennese elections, the duel rhetoric reached its climax and was seemingly vindicated just after the last polling station closed: The publication of the exit polls showed a neck-and-neck-race between the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party, a continuation of the Red-Green Government would be impossible because of the massive losses of the SPÖ.
But when exactly one hour later the first projections – not based on polls but on the actually posted votes – came in, the bubble burst: The Social Democrats led by more than 8%, the Freedom Party finally got “only” slightly above 30% of the votes.
The Green party gained about 3,000 additional votes but lost 0.8% and one seat in the city council. 11.8% is not a devastating result considering the highly bipolar political climate, but it still is very disappointing. The unfortunate announcement of Maria Vassilakou from August 2015 that she would resign in case of losses and her subsequent back step from this promise made things worse.
Public analysis of the political failure has a long tradition within the Green Movement and joining this chorus normally cannot do much good. On the other hand the next major election will be the general election in 2018, so this might just be the time for a critical analysis after all.
To analyse green failure we should probably look at green successes and luckily, we had that too in this election. By a margin of only a few hundred votes the Greens became the strongest party in the district of Währing, the 18th district of Vienna, and Silvia Nossek thus became Bezirksvorsteherin, a position more a less comparable to a mayor of this part of Vienna with about 50.000 inhabitants. She led a very intensive electoral campaign especially with the help of the Young Greens (Junge Grüne) and many volunteers. After 25 years with a conservative Bezirksvorsteher and car-centered traffic politics, many people especially in the urban areas of this very diverse district felt suffocated by an ever growing number of cars, traffic jams and lack of parking spaces. The obvious failure of her predecessor to provide a liveable environment prepared the way for an electoral campaign focused on change, quality of life, and personal contact.
While “Grüne Hausbesuche”, the knocking on doors, became an integral part of every Green Electoral Campaign over the last few years, their impact turns out not to be as big as we hoped for. It seems that a growing minority of people likes our concept of a greener and more liveable city and this can provide us with local victories, as can a revolutionary mood against corruption, like in Salzburg and Carinthia. But the Austrian Green Party is still, and probably more than ever, seen as a feel-good party one can vote for when everything else is fine. Ironically enough given our own perception of always fighting for the weak, we don’t seem to credibly tackle the “real” problems of ordinary people and especially the underprivileged.
While long-term MP and former spokesperson of the Austrian Green Party, Peter Pilz, asks for leftwing populism, Cengiz Kulaç, former head of the Young Greens and now on the board of the Grüne Bildungswerkstatt (Austrian Green Foundation) acknowledges the merits of the professionalisation and the move to the centre we have seen in the last years, but he also states that it is time now to become political again. We should not only fight on the political middle ground, but we need to redefine it. Kulaç sees a necessity for a convincing Zukunftserzählung (narrative of the future) with the key notions of freedom and solidarity, but without the intellectual detachment of former years. Political ideas have be concrete, achievable visions about the real life situations of our potential voters, they have to be introduced on a local level, through personal contact.
We have to strike the balance between on the one hand a coherent identity for the Greens – fit for mass media and the mainstream – and on the other hand room for real democracy and grassroots activism. The campaign focus of recent years provided us with new voters attracted by a streamlined appearance or a single issue. We should be happy about their votes but we must be able to politicise these people so they will not be easily distracted by just another topic or a different mood at the next election.
The Greens are widely perceived as the counter-weight to the far right FPÖ, but on multiple occasions a large number of fierce adversaries of the far right decided to vote for the Social Democrats, although their stance against the FPÖ is far less convincing – the SPÖ is in a coalition government with the FPÖ in the region of Burgenland – and they are prone to implement FPÖ policies when they are in power.
The Greens compared to the Social Democrats need to provide the surplus of a comprehensive, attractive and credible counter position to the far right along the lines of global solidarity instead of fortress Europe.
To add profile and depth to this position and at the same time reach out to people beyond the traditional green milieus will present a huge challenge over the comingyears. This election in Vienna was a painful reminder of the ephemeral nature of political success.
Green politics in Austria needs to grow in a way that is sustainable in the future, especially in the next general election in 2018, where we risk – once again – finding ourselves taken by surprise by a duel, this time not for the town hall, but for Austria.