Reportage. Austria’s runoff election Dec. 4 pits a former Green party economics professor against a Trump-like populist.

In Austria’s Rust Belt, workers swing toward right-wing populism

These are the last days of the Austrian presidential campaign, whose outcome is far from certain. The polls show a contest down to the wire between diametrically opposed candidates: the former leader of the Greens, Alexander Van der Bellen, who had won the first runoff on May 22 by 31,000 votes, and the candidate of the xenophobic FPOe Norbert Hofer, who appealed the result and forced a do-over.

Many workers had voted for the right-wing candidate, as had happened in the American Rust Belt. In an attempt to understand the reasons behind it, we went to Kapfenberg, deep in Austria’s industrial Upper Styria region, south of Vienna.

It is a town of 23,000 inhabitants, an old blue collar stronghold and one of the most historically left-wing seats of the country. You can tell from the street names: Koloman Wallisch Platz, the central square dedicated to the Schutzbund commander who led a Socialist armed uprising on Feb. 12, 1934, against fascism. Some roads are dedicated to the communist fighters, who, after Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938, formed the clandestine “anti-fascist front.” Here Hofer, the Austrian Trump, won 60 percent of the votes in May, an unprecedented swing to the right.

The area grew around the Boehler Uddeholm steel mill, a global brand, transforming itself from a provincial Austrian rust belt into an expanding industrial hub. It is more a story of success than of decline.

We head to the Boehler plant, which currently employs 2,500 employees; back in better times it had up to 7,000. We went to the plant’s entrance No. 6 during a shift change. The first person to approach us was a young worker.

“I know how to vote: I say no to the Greens, so no to Van der Bellen,” he said. “Why? Because of the immigrants.”

The next is older, 42 years old. “I’m not going to vote,” he said. “None of the candidates meets the prerequisites. Politicians are just a lobby, actually. They are the lobbyists’ hired servants.” Many share this position. The widespread hostility against the Greens strikes us: “I do not like them. They are total morons. It is clear who I will vote for,” said another.

It doesn’t help that the former leader of the Greens is now running as an independent candidate and funds a denigrating campaign against the Greens that is circulating in provincial areas and in the countryside.

Finally a woman passes by. Van der Bellen had won the women’s vote. Verena, 19, is baby-faced and has a timid voice. “I am a simple worker,” she said. “I will vote for Hofer. Van der Bellen represents the students; Hofer is closer to the people.” It must be said that Hofer came here, and Van der Bellen did not. Many other young faces come along, long hair, earrings … still Hofer: They express disappointment with the E.U., the immigrants, the government’s stalemate locked in an eternal grand coalition, the desire to change the system.

“We were not able to present any hopeful prospects of change. The appearance is that we defend the status quo,” admitted Siegfried Schausberger, the representative of the Greens in a nearby area. They are not represented in Kapfenberg.

I waited to meet at least one person who will vote for Van der Bellen. Here comes Erich, 55 years old, in the powder technology industry. “I will not vote for a racist pro-Nazi,” he said. “I find the continuous incitement of FPOe alarming.” How does he explain the choices of many of his colleagues? “They fear the refugees. They fear they will lose things to be given to them.”

To what extent do the changes in working conditions impact on the ballot? “It’s just one of many factors,” explains Peter Bakun and Gerhard Scheidreiter of the Boehler works council, both elected on FSG lists, the Socialist trade union faction supported by 98 percent of workers here.

“Of course we are no longer in the ‘70s, when Boehler was state-owned and SPOe ruled with an absolute majority distributing services and accommodations. The climate is tougher. The pressure at work is getting stronger. We need to produce more and more in less time and with fewer people. The employers would like to introduce the 12-hour workday, which we reject.” The level of real wages has been saved, but the cost of living has increased, and the work at the steel mill is heavy.

There is also a certain fear of losing their jobs because low-skilled jobs are becoming scarcer. In return, the company — a “good” employer, they tell us — organizes retraining courses and apprenticeships. Currently, it has 170 at work, following a process that can take up to four years to get a secured job. However, unemployment is at 8.2 percent, with a rising trend in recent years in Austria. Many immigrants also work at the factory, from the former Yugoslavia, Poland and Turkey. Seventeen percent of the Kapfenberg population is of immigrant origin.

“The problem started when migrants from cultural areas different from ours arrived,” explained mayor Manfred Wegscheider, whom we met at City Hall. “I refer to Islamic immigrants. When the attack in Paris happened, the FPOe rode it as though it had happened here in town.”

This municipality is dominated by SPOe with an absolute majority, barely maintained (with 48 percent) in the 2015 municipal elections, a debacle for a party that until 2010 won 77 percent of the votes. Then why the transfer of allegiances to Hofer? “It’s a question that arises everywhere,” Wegscheider said “Why did Americans go down to the point of voting for Trump? Anyone can launch the most absurd messages and spread them on social media among millions of people.”

The lowest point was reached here: The FPOe deputy mayor Reinhard Richter likened Van der Bellen to Hitler, posting a billboard portraying the former economics professor on a mountain landscape background, standing next to a dog and next to him, one of Adolf Hitler also on a mountain background with a dog. “I’m amazed. It went beyond all limits. You cannot joke about the worst mass murderer. It puts democracy at risk,” raged the mayor. “The FPOe provokes, denigrates and lies about everything, while Mr. Hofer shows a kind face.”

The Austrian Communist Party, KPOe, is also represented in this town, with two councilors and 7 percent of the votes. Christian Seidl directs the integration office, and Clemens Parteneder holds the housing department. They are quite appreciated by the citizens who queued up in front of their offices; however, many will vote for the FPOe “because you don’t count.”

Its strong social commitment has earned the KPOe a particular position in Styria as well as in the regional capital, Graz, where it is the second strongest party with 20 percent of the votes, ahead of the FPOe. The party favors the Oexit and does not support any candidate; Christian and Clemens do not share these positions. They praise the mayor and told us about a model municipality, which functions as a high-level service center for citizens managed with great sensitivity for those in need.

The election will likely turn out as predicted by the Sora polling institute: The pessimists, who see no prospects for the future, are swinging to the right. After all, as Sora concludes, “there is no leftist vision for the future. The only interest of the E.U. is: pay off the debt.”

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