After months of strife among Austria’s social democrats—and an election screw-up—they have a new leader.
Roughly three months ago, a roller-coaster ride within Austria’s social-democratic party officially began, with the announcement that the SPÖ would hold a referendum among its members over its future leadership. It had been apparent for years that the party was disunited, with serial sideswipes against the then SPÖ-leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner—the first-ever woman to hold the position—from her rival Hans Peter Doskozil.
Meanwhile, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), despite various scandals, resurged in the polls—the beneficiary of the Covid-19, energy and cost-of-living crises, as well as the inadequacy of alternatives in the Austrian party landscape. The social democrats had failed to exploit the breakup in 2019 of the coalition between the conservative ÖVP and the FPÖ government and the downfall in 2021 of the ÖVP chancellor and supposed Wunderkind, Sebastian Kurz. The SPÖ’s lack of unity led to a loss of trust among voters, while its preoccupation with near-constant internal disputes appeared to confirm it could not perform a persuasive politics of opposition.
Three candidates contested the party leadership referendum in May: Rendi-Wagner and Doskozil, as well as Andreas Babler, associated with the ‘base’ of the party. Rendi-Wagner resigned when she came last. On June 3rd, the SPÖ held an extraordinary party convention, where delegates had to choose between the remaining two.
That Saturday, when the aim was to bring peace within the party and clarity as to its future leadership, the results were clear—it seemed. Doskozil, with 53 per cent of the delegates’ votes, had won; Babler, obtaining only 47 per cent, had lost. On the Monday, however, the result was revoked. As the leader of the electoral commission explained that afternoon during an emergency press conference, the votes for the two candidates had, through a ‘technical error’, been mixed up on a spreadsheet. Babler had won, after all.
While both are social democrats, Doskozil and Babler represent opposite sides of the social-democratic spectrum: the more conservative, nationalistic wing and the left respectively. This is particularly evident in their opposing views on migration.
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Doskozil had claimed he wanted to do a ‘better migration policy than the FPÖ’. With that, he admitted that—inspired by the social democrats in Denmark—he sought to win back voters from the far right. His calculation, as encapsulated by Der Standard, was that there was more to gain from the right than to lose from the left.
Babler, on the contrary, is considered a ‘rebel’. Stressing that asylum is a human right, he is mayor of the small industrial town of Traiskirchen, just outside Vienna, which has the biggest refugee reception centre in the country. He won the last mayoral election with over 70 per cent support.
Babler accrues public sympathy with his backing for a reduction in working hours and taxation of millionaires but this makes him a controversial figure for some established SPÖ members. And, remarkably, he defeated Doskozil, representing the conservative wing of the party. The progressives among the social democrats heaved a sigh of relief.
The election débâcle will certainly be exploited by the media and the right to question the SPÖ’s competence as a governing party and it did not help re-establish trust among voters. But that does not mean it has to harm the party in the long run.
Some argue that such progressive policies would alienate some voters from the SPÖ, increasing the likelihood that another right-wing, ÖVP-FPÖ coalition would ensue from next year’s parliamentary elections. A stricter stance on migration by the SPÖ could instead win over more voters, the argument goes.
Yet quite the contrary could be true. As the political scientists Tarik Abou-Chadi and Sonja Häusermann contend, there is broader support for more progressive agendas in western-European societies than hitherto assumed—a claim underpinned by their research with colleagues.
The recent state election in Salzburg corroborates the view that more leftist, progressive politics are slowly gaining ground across Austria, as evidenced by the advance of the Communist Party (KPÖ). The SPÖ under Babler is likely more able (and willing) to take advantage of this trend and win over voters.
Doskozil, on the contrary, sought to gain votes from the right, which would have led to voters from the left wing of the SPÖ presumably turning away in the 2024 parliamentary elections to more socialist parties instead. As the research confirms, a conservative-leaning social-democratic party, as imagined by Doskozil—more restrictive on migration issues—would lose support among left-wing voters with barely any gains among right-wing voters in return. Thus, the assumption that such a stance would bring greater success for social democrats, by way of (re-)gaining voters from the (far) right, is not substantiated.
Under Babler the SPÖ has a real opportunity to win back voters by addressing current challenges and anxieties that trouble Austrians—such as the rising cost of living amid flatlining wages. With Babler’s progressive programme, there is hope that honest and successful social-democratic politics—without drifting to the right—will follow, persuading dissatisfied voters and stemming the surge of the far right.
It is an extraordinary chance for social democracy in Austria to make a comeback —one that must not be wasted.
Gabriela Greilinger is an Austrian-Hungarian political scientist and co-founder of the youth platform Quo Vademus. She regularly writes about EU politics, international affairs, democracy and populism, with a regional focus on Europe and in particular central and eastern Europe.