Founded in 1918, the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) is one of the oldest communist parties in the world. In recent years, the party has gained attention outside of Austria, mainly due to its impressive results in Graz, Austria’s second largest city, and more recently in Salzburg, which is all the more interesting as this region is known for its strong conservative leanings.
In June we had the opportunity to meet Waltraud Fritz-Klackl, a long-time member of the KPÖ. She spoke at an event in Belgrade entitled “The Future of Europe from the Perspective of the European Left”, organised by the Solidarity Political Platform and the Party of the European Left (PEL). To our delight, Waltraud, who is a member of the political secretariat of the PEL, agreed to give an interview to Mašina.
How did you become interested in politics and why did you decide to join the Communist Party of Austria?
I developed an interest in politics at a young age, and I started initiatives already as a young child. I believe there is such a thing as a talent for things, and I discovered that my talent is to connect with people.
While studying in Salzburg in the early 1970s, I became involved in Marxist student groups. Eventually I decided to join the Communist Party of Austria. I was attracted to the party because of its clear rules, which gave me a structured framework. It also served as a means of expressing my opposition to my family’s political views, coming as I did from a petit bourgeois Austrian background. Initially, my choice was met with disapproval and my family withdrew their financial support. But for the last ten years of their lives they voted communist and were proud of it.
Within the Communist Party I found true friendships and loyal companions. I learned a lot, especially about the less visible facets of Austrian history, such as the resistance against Nazism and the brave fighters for justice. I also came to appreciate a different way of looking at life, one based on solidarity rather than personal ambition and wealth.
I pursued a career as a teacher independent of Party employment. However, being a communist educator in public schools had its own challenges and complexities.
Are you aware of any historical ties between the Yugoslav and Austrian communist parties?
Although some of the most prominent comrades fought alongside Yugoslav partisans, the KPÖ remained loyal to the USSR after the Tito-Stalin split. In fact, the KPÖ even expelled some members who expressed pro-Yugoslav views.
But a major turning point came in 1956, when the USSR intervened in Hungary to suppress the uprising. This event triggered a crisis within the Austrian Communist Party, but it wasn’t until Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 that the crisis reached its peak. And although many comrades were expelled in the aftermath of this crisis, which should have been a wake-up call, after a long period of internal debate the party finally shed this Stalinist attitude through self-criticism, public denunciation of Stalinism and a shift towards a renewal of Marxism.
In the decades that followed, the party faced challenges over its name, with members debating whether it should be changed. Over time, however, the urgency of the issue diminished. Interestingly, it was the Styrian branch of the party – which was strongly in favour of keeping the name – that gained electoral momentum. Its electoral support in Graz rose impressively from 3% to 20% in the early 2010s.
I would like to stop you there and ask you to explain to us what factors contributed to the rise of the KPÖ in terms of electoral success?
There were several factors that contributed to the rise of the party in Graz. One key figure was Ernest Kaltenegger, a respected city councillor who spearheaded housing initiatives in the city. He dedicated himself to housing issues and actively engaged with residents in various housing areas.
In particular, Kaltenegger adopted a modest lifestyle, ensuring that his income was in line with that of an ordinary worker. He also selflessly contributed more than half of his salary to a fund for social emergencies. This fund was not earmarked for the Party or for specific projects, but rather to help individuals in difficulty. So people could come and say, “I’m losing my home, can you help me?” or “I’m a single mother and I need a washing machine, but I can’t afford it” and they could get support.
Transparency is an important aspect of their approach. Once a year, the fund’s accounts are published so that everyone can see how the money is being spent. In addition, every KPÖ member who takes office pledges to donate a significant portion of their income to the fund, further increasing its resources and impact. Such tangible actions contribute to the growing support for the party in the Styrian region.
By the way, Ernest Kaltenegger is an admirer of the former Yugoslavia. He has walked the trails of the partisans in Slovenia, often leading groups of people along. In particular, the KPÖ has been organising a successful festival called Yugo Fešta in Graz for a number of years. This event is a tribute to people from Yugoslavia who now live in the Styrian region.
Ideologically, this branch of the party is conservative, but they are very pragmatic and effective in their policies, and people respect them for that.
And what about the recent increase in the electoral strength of the KPÖ in Salzburg? Salzburg is quite different from Graz, at least according to my very limited knowledge of Austrian local politics.
To provide some context, it is important to understand that the state of Salzburg is known for its conservative leanings, and even the Social Democrats have never held a majority there. Therefore, the KPÖ’s significant increase in electoral support from 0.4% to 11.7% of the vote in the recent state elections came as a surprise to many.
Kay-Michael Dankl, a young party member, managed to get into the Salzburg city council in 2019 and took over the emergency fund model from Graz. He also continued to work part-time as a museum guide. With the extra income, he hired a comrade to accompany him into marginalised neighbourhoods, offering help and advice to people facing challenges such as housing problems.
What was the focus of the election campaign in Slazburg?
The KPÖ focused mainly on the cost of living crisis. They concentrated on housing and energy issues. It is worth noting that Salzburg has a high percentage of second homes, as wealthy people from other regions buy apartments there, making housing unaffordable for many. The result is a large number of empty houses and a significant population unable to afford decent accommodation. The KPÖ promises to tackle this problem.
Energy prices were another issue targeted by the KPÖ, as energy prices were being kept high on the pretext of inflation, while energy companies continued to increase their profits.
While the KPÖ is open to discussing a wide range of issues, its primary focus during the campaign was on addressing the immediate concerns of everyday people affected by the ongoing crisis.
What do you think about the next federal elections? Could the Communist Party repeat its local successes on the state level?
People think about what will happen with their vote. If they see that the KPÖ has a good chance of passing the 4% threshold, they might vote for us.
Then there is the role of the media. In Salzburg, the conservative media decided that they would rather keep the already weak Social Democrats even weaker and live with a growing Communist Party, so they didn’t attack the KPÖ very much.
To gain more ground in Vienna is a different kind of challenge, because the Socialdemocratic Party, which has always governed the city exepcet in the Austro-Faschist period, has a strong history of social policies and developing public infrastructure which benefited the poorer classes. Also, they have the support of migrant communities.
The Social Democratic Party of Austria did badly in the last state elections, but recently there was a leadership election within the party, and after a period of right-wing dominance, Andreas Babler, a true left-winger, was elected leader of the party.
I’m happy about this change in the Social Democratic Party, I hope that the people of Austria will benefit from it, but it also means that it may be harder for the KPÖ to win votes.
On the surface, there is not much discontent in Austrian society. There are protests by care workers and pre-school workers, but they are more moderate than in other European countries. But under the surface people are suddenly voting for the KPÖ, as in Salzburg, they are voting internally for a leftist in the Social Democratic Party. People are looking around and trying to find who can be our Robin Hood, so to say.
There is still not enough confidence in the air for people to say ‘we can do it together’. The understanding that we are all in this together has been lost and needs to be regained. But the question of “who can represent us in a decent and good way” is palpable. There is a need for decent and honest representation. The Communist Party must build on this.