by Svetlana VASOVIC-MEKINA
Shock: The whole story is not a joke. Sympathizers of the Communist Party caused a veritable shock not only in Graz (and Heider’s Klagenfurt), but also abroad, in Italy, Slovenia and Germany. With 20.8 percent of votes in the elections for the city assembly, Communists became the second largest (in some precincts the largest) party in Graz, which horrified their political opponents. Especially since the Communists achieved this success in the city that has until recently been known primarily as the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger and, starting with this year, also as “the cultural capital of Europe” by defeating the nationalist Freedom Party (FPO) led by Joerg Heider. From 26.78 percent of votes in the last elections, the FPO fell to only 7.98 percent and lost all the previously held seats in the city assembly. Besides the Communists, the Austrian Greens were also successful, while Austrian Socialists for the first time since WWII were forced to make place for a city government led by the People’s Party (VPO), led by Prime Minister Wolfgang Schisel.
The renaissance of Austrian Communists is mostly the work of one man – Ernst Kaltenegger, celebrated by the media and inhabitants of Styria as the Superman, or “Robin Hood from Graz”. Kaltenegger did not earn the support of voters with empty promises, but with many years of hard work and successful solution of burning social problems of his fellow citizens. Actually, probably his crucial activity is the way he assists socially endangered and powerless citizens. Unlike their fellow Communists from the former Communist block, the Austrian Communists today spurn almost all the privileges offered by power and politics, including high salaries earmarked for representatives in the city assembly, and thus, as some sort of contemporary Robin Hood literally distribute most of their salaries to the most needy inhabitants of Graz. Although Kaltenegger confessed in a conversation with Vreme his fear that the electoral victory is a beginning of a defeat, since he is aware of the fact that he will not be able to meet all the expectations and hopes of the voters, he is determined to use his participation in power to make life better for as many citizens without a home, job, or regular meals, as possible. Our walk through the streets of Graz with Ernest Kaltenegger confirmed that the decision not to get rich on the state trough was not mere demagoguery. “It would be immoral if we, who always advocated something like that, keep the high salaries that we are entitled to as city councilors once we win seats in the city assembly! Consequently, our decision is that each councilor is entitled only to the income that he had before winning a seat in the city assembly. In my case that is about 60 percent of my future income, while the rest will be distributed to people in trouble. This is a mode of redistribution of income that anyone can implement, starting with himself or herself. Specifically, my salary in the city assembly is about 4500 Euros a month. I keep 1850 Euros, which is enough to cover my living expenses, and the rest goes into the fund from where it is distributed to those in trouble,” Kaltenegger explains while passersby, ordinary people, young and old, approach him, cordially shake his hand, slap his shoulder, congratulating him on the electoral success and extending their good wishes for the future.
The money that Kaltenegger and comrades collect is distributed to those who have trouble paying rent, young couples who have no money for electricity bills, mothers who need a washing machine, or money to fix a broken window, to visit a physician or buy food… “Everything we get, everything we collect is carefully kept track of. Similarly, we keep track of all distributions from the fund. Once a year we organize an open doors day, when we invite journalists as well. Then, on the spot, anyone can check our books and see what had happened with our salaries, how much money had been collected and whether it had been spent reasonably,” Kaltenegger concludes, proud of the joint endeavor.
Finally, his victorious motto (used in the election campaign) was “We help, we don’t talk!”. He resolutely sticks to that order, determined to demonstrate using his personal example that Communists are not in power to primarily help themselves. Kaltenegger and comrades openly, through their personal example promote solidarity in hope that that will inspire their fellow citizens to help those around them. So far, the response to their initiative, both in Austria and abroad, has been very limited.
Secret of popularity: Whatever the case, the redistribution of their own salaries is not the only reason for the popularity of Austrian Communists. Their defense of endangered tenants who live in sparsely furnished and extremely expensive apartments, especially in larger cities (although that may seem hard to believe for us, given the high standard of living in Austria) has also put them in the limelight. The KPO is increasingly involved in uncovering and preventing speculation with rented apartments and offers free legal assistance to victims of manipulation. The KPO also advocates construction of affordable housing. These policies have drawn many supporters to Kaltenegger’s party. Their political platform is not all that different from that of modern Socialdemocrats and, although they haven’t renounced the legacy of Marxism and “believe” that Communism in the eastern camp was an abuse and distortion of an otherwise good and humane idea, they nevertheless support parliamentary democracy and all the achievements of the open society. Also, they are concerned about all sorts of inequality in the world and consequently criticize Western politicians.
Even when a “mob” rolls down the streets of Graz, Kaltenegger, the newly minted state official, has no reason for concern, even less for fear. Thus, during the recent anti-war demonstrations in Graz, Kaltenegger was a true star. Flags of Greenpeace, those sporting the portrait of Che Gevara and Kurdish leader Ocalan flew above the crowd shouting against “blood for oil”, against involvement of Austria in USA’s “warmongering policy” and against “transfer of military material over the Austrian territory”. “Excuse me, I am a big fan. Could I shake your hand?” a young girl with a pierced nose insisted, talking to Kaltenegger, who was obviously in the good mood. He had to deal with tens of fans on that day. If it is true that for every politician handshakes are the best path to electoral success, than on that day Kaltenegger did great.