Could SPÖ’s Burgenland win be beacon of ‘red hope’ for Austria’s social democrats?

In general, it was Doskozil himself who influenced the votes, according to a study by the opinion research institute SORA. EPA/MARIJA KANIZAJ [MARIJA KANIZAJ/EPA]

In Burgenland’s state elections, socialist Hans-Peter Doskozil (SPÖ) won the absolute majority, bringing a ray of hope to the Austrian socialist party which has suffered a multitude of defeats recently. One would think the party could learn something from this, but a party insider thinks this is unlikely. EURACTIV Germany reports.

For Austria’s social democracy, it was a ‘red spark of hope’ in what has been quite a dark period for the party. While the SPÖ has been losing elections for months, it was able to increase its voter count by 8% in the Burgenland state elections, where it now holds an absolute majority of 49.94%.

Overnight, top candidate Hans-Peter Doskozil became a beacon of hope for the SPÖ. And if the party wants to start winning elections in 2020 in the hope of ‘making a comeback’, it may just want to learn a thing or two from this victory.

The state of the Social Democratic Party is “desolate and disastrous”, a party insider, who wants to remain anonymous, told EURACTIV. From obtaining the worst result in the party’s history in the legislative elections of 2019 (21.2 %), it plummeted to 16% in the polls.

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Yet, it is said that the party leadership is not capable of reform, that critical voices and new ideas are not heard. Although reform had been announced for 2020, the insider had little hope for it.

Apart from the general lack of will to change, discussions are also avoided, in order to be perceived as a united front. However, this hardly ever succeeds, and chairwoman Pamela Rendi-Wagner, in particular, is often criticised from within her ranks.

Doskozil’s SPÖ in Burgenland, however, has succeeded in making a united appearance, which voters saw as conveying stability. In general, it was Doskozil himself who influenced the votes, according to a study by the opinion research institute SORA.

“This was not a victory of the SPÖ, but Doskozil,” the insider said.

The crisis manager from next door

While the federal SPÖ struggles to address both liberal academics and workers, Doskozil positions himself as an ordinary man. He doesn’t care “if left-wing elites like what we do,” he told Austrian broadcaster ORF.

He has also distanced himself from the image of a tactical politician.

When the SPÖ discussed the new social democratic narrative after the 2019 election defeat, he told daily newspaper DER STANDARD: “Narrative! I can’t hear the word anymore!”

Besides, Doskozil was already able to prove his competence as a crisis manager. When hundreds of thousands of people were coming to Austria via Burgenland in 2015, the then head of the provincial police, Doskozil, coordinated the emergency forces.

At that time he said in an interview with the KURIER: “If I were in the position of a refugee – even if I were an economic refugee – and saw how much better life is in Europe, I would flee too”.

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The SPÖ’s right-leaning faction

But a lot has changed since then.

Doskozil became defence minister in January 2016 and, in January 2019, Burgenland’s new governor. As his roles changed, so did his rhetoric on migration and asylum.

In a strategy paper entitled “Integration before immigration”, Doskozil called for the protection of those eligible for asylum, but also for quicker deportations, emphasising that “those seeking protection can best be helped close to their countries of origin”.

This is why Doskozil is often considered to be part of the more right-leaning faction of the SPÖ. But also because he, as Burgenland’s governor, had formed a coalition with the far-right FPÖ, which he told EURACTIV was a “reliable government partner”. And this completely contradicts the relations between the SPÖ and the FPÖ at the federal level.

Right turn for Federal SPÖ?

In comparison to the SPÖ at the federal level, Doskozil stands for “left-wing social policy and more restrictive security policy”, said the party insider, explaining that this would be the right course for the party.

Currently, it has the image of a (pro)”immigrant party”, but “in more right-wing parts of the country” one should no longer be perceived this way, the insider added. Although people should be granted asylum, the SPÖ should also communicate “that we are against open borders and do not stand for children wearing headscarves”.

Doskozil also told EURACTIV he expects the SPÖ to “take a very close look at what can be learnt from our successful path” at the federal level because “social democracy must manage the balancing act between social and security issues”.

Doskozil already gave an example of this: On the very evening of winning the election, he said in a TV interview that the SPÖ should reconsider its rejection of the government’s planned preventive detention.

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However, the insider fears that hope for real reform is limited. Losing the elections in socialist-run Vienna, set for autumn 2020, would deal a final deathblow to the SPÖ. And since the party wants to appear united until then, it is unlikely to discuss new ideas.

This means the leadership question will come up after the Vienna election – but, according to the insider, this will be done relatively safely.

In case of an election debacle, Rendi-Wagner would be branded a “loser”.

If, however, Vienna’s mayor Michael Ludwig wins the Vienna election, the party’s power will emanate from the three socialist governors: Doskozil, Ludwig and Peter Kaiser in Carinthia.

And even if none of them run, they will likely be the ones deciding new leadership.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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