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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Notes of the Month


Bonfire of the certainties


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Freedom Party won 22.6 percent of the vote in the Austrian elections last month. With 42 seats in the new parliament it is only ten seats behind the Tory People’s Party which was in coalition with the Social Democrats.

The Social Democrats have dominated Austrian politics for the last 40 years and remain the largest party. With the two parties of the coalition winning less than 80 percent of the vote for the first time since the end of the war, Austria is entering a period of political instability.

Haider, leader of the Freedom Party, is notorious for comments he made in 1991 praising Hitler’s employment policies. He campaigned relentlessly on an anti-immigrant platform, arguing that immigrants were responsible for serious crime and should be expelled. He also fought to have the number of non-German speaking children in primary school classes reduced.

His racist message struck a chord because he related to the resentment many Austrians feel about having to pay for austerity measures the government says are inevitable. He campaigned for a radical overhaul of the state bureaucracy, targeting waste and featherbedding.

Disillusion has not been one way. The left leaning Greens and the Liberal Forum saw their vote increase. The real danger, however, is that the Tory People’s Party will flirt with the far right in an attempt to avoid losing their base to Haider. There are rumours that they will form a coalition government with the Freedom Party.

The extreme right also did well in local elections in Belgium. The racist Flemish Nationalist Party, the Vlaams Blok, consolidated its hold on Antwerp with a 28 percent vote.

In the French speaking south of the country, Wallonia, and in Brussels, the fascists made significant gains for the first time. The National Front, closely modelled on Le Pen’s French fascists, won council positions in 19 of the capital’s communes. In Liege, the capital of Wallonia, they won four seats.

As in Austria, the extreme right campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform. Antagonism between the two language communities also played its part, feeding off resentment against the federal government, where the Christian Democrats and the Socialists share office.

However, there is still nervousness about too explicit an identification with Nazism. After the elections, when television showed footage of a newly elected Brussels councillor urinating on a Jewish grave, the outcry forced the leader of the National Front to disown him. The anti-Semitism which links the present far right with the prewar and wartime Nazi movement is just below the surface. But the far right is still forced to play respectable politics.

Discontent with the economic situation can also move to the left. Over 30,000 high school students, their teachers and parents recently demonstrated in Brussels in protest at education cuts.

This zigzagging characterises other European countries. In Italy the pro-Berlusconi euphoria is evaporating rapidly. Hailed as the man to overcome graft and corruption in the state machine, he is becoming as tarnished as the old Christian Democrat and Socialist leaders.

Mr Clean is now under suspicion of exploiting his political position to benefit his huge publishing and media empire. The budget, which was presented for presidential approval with only 15 minutes reading time before the deadline, contained measures which would have ruined the finances of the state television (to the obvious benefit of his Fininvest company). He was forced to drop the proposals.

His coalition is now looking as wobbly as any that characterised the old political set up. This has played into the hands of his coalition partners, particularly the fascists and their leader, Gianfranco Fini, whose popularity in the opinion polls has increased. But that is only one side of the picture. The other is the enormous anger provoked by government plans to cut pension rights for millions of Italians. The general strike against pension cuts closed down large parts of Italy.

In France corruption is also rife in the political establishment. Alain Carignon, the communications minister, resigned in July as a result of allegations of illegal payments for public work contracts in the city of which he is mayor, Grenoble. He is now in jail. Recently another minister, Gerard Longuet, was forced to resign over backhanders.

The revelation of corruption, if not of Italian proportions, is allowing Le Pen’s National Front to stage a modest revival. This is only a few months since it was relegated to the margins by the wave of working class anger which started with the Air France strike and climaxed with the demonstrations against cutting the minimum wage for youth.

Meanwhile, the re-election of Helmut Kohl’s conservatives in Germany is unlikely to provide any stability there, with the coalition hanging on by a narrow margin. However, here, the far right Republikaner saw a dramatic fall in their vote.

The political structures of the postwar settlement are becoming less stable as resentment grows at the failure of the system. The zigzags from explosions of working class anger to renewed advance for the far right and back again are the sign of what a real socialist alternative could build on and a warning of what could happen in its absence.

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