With the Communist Party (KPÖ) making first place in the September 2021 municipal elections in Graz, Austria, its leader Elke Kahr will likely be forming a coalition with the Greens and the Social Democrats.
The results of the municipal elections in Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, on 26 September 2021, have sparked much interest world-wide. With the long-standing mayor of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), Siegfried Nagl, losing first place to the Communist Party (KPÖ), the prospects of having a Communist mayor are being widely discussed. By forming a coalition with the Greens and Social Democrats (SPÖ), the leader of the KPÖ in Graz, Elke Kahr, will likely be the city’s new mayor.
People did not vote for the Communists in Graz because they are Communists, but rather in support of the KPÖ record in Graz. Their electoral success is due to their decades-long activities on the grassroots level and to the ÖVP’s uncreative electoral campaign devoid of any appealing content. Clearly, mayor Nagl’s promotion of grand and highly debated prestige projects (such as the Mur power plant, cable cars, or the metro) as well as his lack of any vision, did not suffice to mobilize his voters, as the low turnout of 53.19 % indicates.
Whereas the People’s Party lost 11.8 %, dropping to 25.9 %, the Communist Party gained first place with an increase of 8.5 %, finishing with 28.8 % of the vote. The other parties recorded an increase as well, except for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which until now had formed a coalition with the People’s Party and lost about a third of its seats. The Green Party received 17.3 % (plus 6.8%), the SPÖ 9.5 % (minus 0.5%), and the liberal NEOS 5.4 % (plus 1.5%).
The unexpected victory of the Communist Party in these elections will not initiate a rebirth of Communism and the death of neoliberal policies, nor will it constitute an earthquake changing the Austrian political landscape. It is a purely regional development. The Communist Party in Styria showed that harsh criticism of capitalism in combination with activities on the grassroots level can lead to electoral success.
Having focused on communal politics and social issues that affect citizens’ day-to-day problems, the KPÖ has earned the reputation of being a vanguard fighting for the weakest when it comes to affordable living and the prices of public transport. The Communist Party’s maintaining an emergency hotline for tenants, open office hours for citizens’ consultation and financial support for those in need, while opposing the conservative mayor’s costly prestige projects, gave people the feeling of being heard. Support of their voters is demonstrated also by their donating about two-thirds of their income to social projects and their annual celebration of the day of open accounts on 28 December, when they make their finances publicly available. The Communists have thereby achieved credibility with their popular leading candidate and long-time city counselor Elke Kahr, sometimes referred to as the friendly face of the party.
Nevertheless, the Communists could not celebrate their victory for very long because, shortly after the election results became public, an interview with a Communist Party member of the Styrian parliament, Werner Murgg, on Belarus TV in August 2021 surfaced. In the interview, Murgg praised the Belarusian regime for its “stability and order” and heavily criticized the European Union’s sanctions against it. Reacting to the ensuing media outrage, the Party distanced itself from his trip and interview emphasizing that it was a private matter and not coordinated with the Party. Officially the KPÖ has issued a statement that it does not support dictatorial regimes.
However, additional pictures of Murgg and Styrian Communist Party members with Aliaksei Sokol and Nikolai Volovich, two confidantes of Belarussian dictator Lukashenko, hardly render such statements credible. So far, Murgg has not stepped down from his parliamentary function. Furthermore, a similar journey of Murgg as part of a “peace and neutrality delegation” to the still-contested Eastern Ukraine in May 2021 adds fuel to this discussion and raises many questions.
In any case, this Communist phenomenon in Graz is regional in its scope and will not have any lasting effect outside of Styria’s borders. Social welfare policies on the grassroots level may be where the soon-to-be mayor Elke Kahr has credibility and expertise, but the Communist party’s overall position in matters that transcend communal politics should be made clearer to both its voters and the general public.