The Austrian Greens suffered a serious setback in 2017 when the party split and subsequently failed to pass the 4-per-cent electoral threshold. This September in an early election held after a corruption scandal collapsed the right-wing government, the party achieved a historic high, gaining 13.9 per cent of the votes. From appealing across the rural-urban divide to new electoral coalitions, the strategic questions emerging from the recent Austrian election are relevant for green and progressive parties all over Europe. Bartłomiej Kozek discusses the reasons for their turnaround with Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic, a newly elected MP.
Bartłomiej Kozek: From dropping out of parliament after the 2017 parliamentary elections, this time around the Greens are one of the two chief winners along with the Christian-democratic Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) led by Sebastian Kurz. How has the situation changed?
Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic: After 2017, we needed to rebuild from a low base. Opinion polls usually give our party more votes that we receive on polling day, so this time around mobilising our voters was a priority. We made sure our supporters knew that they had to turn out and that passing the threshold could not be taken for granted.
This strategy paid off. According to exit poll analysis, large swathes of the electorate that we lost to the Social Democrats in 2017 returned to the Greens. More left-leaning voters were put off by the centre-left’s flirtation with anti-immigrant rhetoric. We even gained a significant boost from former ÖVP voters discouraged by their party’s neoliberal turn and who appreciated our social policies.
18 months ago the situation was different. Only two Greens sat in the Austrian parliament in the upper, far less powerful Federal Council. There was no official parliamentary group and we were left with two small rooms with no staff and budget.
How did you manage to bounce back?
An association of people supporting our parliamentary work was founded. This allowed us to employ a skeleton crew to help with practical matters like accounting. The Green political foundation lost the financial support it received from the state but used the last of its money to launch the Congresses of the Future. These events were a chance for people and experts interested in green thinking to discuss the future of the party and the country.
The knowledge gathered in these quarterly meetings helped shape our manifesto. The last Congress of the Future in 2018 brought together 700 people – a huge number for a party trailing in the polls and considering that at the time an early election was not on the cards. Over the last two years, the party has returned to its roots and shown that the visions of Austria that first emerged 30 years ago are still relevant, especially in the current climate crisis. This realisation convinced new people to join our cause.
The Greens have relatively consistent levels of support across the country. How have you avoided being seen as just another liberal party of the urban elite?
We are aware that the Greens may have such an image and it haunts us from time to time. The media can sometimes seize on a single topic to exploit this stereotype. During the Amazon fires this summer, the Greens were attacked for criticising the low-cost meat industry. This critique became their proof of excessive intellectualism and a detachment from the “lives of normal people.”
The Greens have always been a mixed bunch. Some people became active in the party due to its environmental credentials, others were energised by women’s or minority rights. It is natural that sometimes one of these topics dominates more than others, but it can lead to Greens being attacked for supposedly forgetting about the rest of our message.
Years of political work have shown that environmental and sustainability issues – animal rights and access to public transport to name a few – do mobilise people living outside big cities. In each region, our political profile is a bit different but still fits within a single, federal party.
Having a modest budget meant that, instead of billboards, the Green campaign relied on leaflets, social media, and creativity. This also meant going out on the streets and talking to people. In such circumstances, it is hard to look like someone detached from normal life. Our message to potential voters was that the crucial ecological transformation depends on progressive social and economic policies.
What are your main policy achievements on the regional level?
We have coalition experience in different regional bodies. Our first coalition in Upper Austria with the ÖVP allowed us to increase the number of kindergarten places. After the coalition changed and ÖVP allied with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), kindergarten fees were raised and many of our successes around equal rights for women in the workplace were undone. It shows the difference that having Greens in power makes.
Small steps change the city for the better, limiting air pollution, and improving quality of life.
In the case of Vienna’s red-green coalition, the yearly public transport pass for 365 euro is a major success and has driven demand for investment in sustainable transport. Vienna also has the highest regional child allowance, which helps to curb child poverty. With Greens in government, Vienna is expanding its cycling network and creating new public spaces in places previously reserved for car traffic. Small steps – from investing in parks to planting fruit trees and installing water siphons – change the city for the better, limiting air pollution, and improving quality of life even in the face of climate change.
How did the governing coalition between Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP and the right-wing populist FPÖ help the Greens regain the electorate’s trust?
Going into the election, most Austrian voters considered renewing the coalition to be the best outcome for the country – even despite the scandal around the shady dealings of leading FPÖ politicians in Ibiza. Kurz successfully portrayed himself almost as a victim of his right-wing allies. And the FPÖ tried to limit the damage from the scandal with some success: their vote share dropped to 16.2 per cent from 20.5 per cent in 2017.
Large parts of the electorate felt as if the ÖVP-FPÖ government was turning back the clock of social progress. The Kurz government tried to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and plotted a neoliberal course supported by its rich sponsors. Elements of the welfare state came under attack under the pretext of use and abuse by immigrants. The maximum working time was raised to 12 hours a day and 60 hours a week. It hit women particularly hard as now they are forced to go part-time and take a pay cut or work a heavy schedule of hours. Funding for women’s rights groups has been cut too.
Viable opposition was seen to be missing in Parliament and the Greens were remembered as people who knew what they were talking about. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, were recently part of a grand coalition with the ÖVP and seemed mostly to be upset about losing the post of chancellor. Meanwhile, the Liberals from the NEOS party are waiting to join the next government.
What was the strategy of the Kurz government in Europe? Was the European Union visible in the election campaign?
Its positions were reactionary and authoritarian. It is no coincidence that its allies on the European scene were the governments of Hungary and Poland, as well as Matteo Salvini when he was deputy prime minister of Italy for the far-right Lega. Kurz and his allies from FPÖ see Austria as part of the EU, but their view of the EU is that of a loose alliance of countries pursuing their own interests and policies. Another vision of Europe is needed badly – a vision that recognises that no country is an island when it comes to transnational issues such as climate change and asylum.
What issues were most important to the Green campaign? How do you combine environmental topics such as the climate crisis with social policy?
Our campaign reminded people that the climate is a social justice issue that influences the lives of people from different walks of life including disadvantaged groups. For the last two years, the Greens have consciously invested in building such connections. On social issues and human rights, we aim to undo the government reforms that limited access to social support. Government investment, particularly in infrastructure, needs to be redirected into more sustainable projects. The tax system should be reformed from an ecological and social tax point of view and major changes are needed to better serve rural areas. It is appalling that in a country as rich as Austria still has villages without decent internet access or public transport.
No country is an island when it comes to transnational issues such as climate change and asylum.
Our three main themes of the campaign – climate, corruption, and social justice – matched the main issues in the public debate. The climate became a prominent topic due to the Fridays for Future movement and the UN Climate Action Summit in New York that took place shortly before the election. As the election was prompted by a corruption affair, it was hard to forget the need for greater transparency in politics and we emphasised this as well as the need for democratic control of the executive branch.
What challenges and opportunities await the Greens in the coming years?
As ecology starts to become the defining issue of the day, we are attracting voters from across the political spectrum, including some that only agree with our environmental policy. This situation is both an opportunity and a challenge as we seek to create a consistent vision that can win the support of both ecologically-minded Christian Democrats and left-wing voters who are sceptical of the coalitions that the Greens have made with the ÖVP in Tirol. Throughout all this, rebuilding party structures and maintaining the balance between regional differences and national coherence will be of utmost importance.