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The Brief – Living under communist rule

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The 2020s have been a great decade for Austrian communists so far. In 2021, a communist became mayor of Graz, the country’s second-largest city, and a year later, a sprouting of the communists won 12% in Salzburg’s state election and might now get a mayor too. 

On Sunday, a communist candidate received 28% of the mayoral vote in Salzburg, beating out all established parties bar the centre-left SPÖ and paving the way for a red-red run-off for mayor on 24 March. The communist, the charismatic Kay-Michael Dankl, may just win it.

That feat would put Austria’s second and third-most important cities – though residents of Linz will claim otherwise – in the hands of communists.

But, can it be said that the Alpine country is sliding into communist rule? No.

The label “communist” has lost its lustre, as the memory of Soviet soldiers raping and pillaging their way across the countryside in 1945 fades.

Communist cufflinks are no longer a reason not to vote for a politician, the newfound sentiment in the outskirts of the Alps goes. Gulags and the Holodomor are more the stuff of 17-year-olds’ history classes than contemporary political fears.

The new communists have facilitated that perception. Gone are the days of sneering intellectuals who are overly confident in the supremacy of their ideology. Instead, Dankl is a 35-year-old historian turned museum guide who oozes charisma.

Unlike his competitors of the big tent parties, he did not feel obliged to offer an answer to all the questions posed by an ever more complex world. Instead, he ran on a single issue: housing. A similar approach had helped a party colleague win Graz.

Rents in Salzburg are among Austria’s highest and construction of new homes has stalled for years. Both winning candidates had promised to build thousands of additional housing units.

Dankl is also akin to a social worker, despite entering government in 2019 due to obscure Austrian rules for state government. Any resident can come to him for advice – and they do. Communist MPs donate a large share of their diet to the needy – it’s populism, but credibly done.

Most of the communists’ voters have interacted with Dankl personally and many Salzburg residents have a personal anecdote to share about their experience with him.

“I follow him on Facebook, and he’s been doing good work [since 2019],” one told me.

In small cities, where turnout is usually around 50% for local elections, shockingly few votes are required to win. A mere 11,000 Salzburg residents voted for Dankl, but that was enough to create an upset.

Of course, a communist comeback in Salzburg should not come as a surprise. The city bordering Bavaria was one of their last strongholds and a dedicated voter base remained.

Communists are even integrated into the city’s nightlife. The communist party HQ is an important student party location, most attend at least one bash beneath the meeting rooms of the local chapter to kick off a new semester – your correspondent included. 

Still, Salzburg potentially getting a communist mayor should not be dismissed as a local idiosyncrasy.

Whatever the outcome in Salzburg, a new wave of politics is upon Austria: A satirical beer party is polling at 8%, the far-right sits at 30%. The traditional parties barely swing 50%, altogether. It is in that context that the communist comeback needs to be considered. 

A large share of Austrians appear desperate for a breath of fresh air, whether it be far-right or far-left – while Dankl scored 28%, the far-right performed far below expectations, coming in at less than 10%. 

This desire for change will be felt at the EU elections in June. But it won’t pay into the communist’s account. Instead, expect the fringes to make gains.

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The Roundup

In Strasbourg, EU lawmakers adopted the controversial Energy Performance of Buildings Directive with a large majority, putting the law one step away from conclusion.

EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides addressed for the first time the concerns among EU lawmakers and health stakeholders about a planned €1 billion cut in the EU’s main funding programme for health, saying a comprehensive assessment was still needed.

The European Parliament rubber-stamped a revised version of the EU’s rules on emissions generated by industrial installations, which will extend to more pig and poultry farms, despite efforts from right-wing lawmakers to topple the law during a final vote in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

The European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI) adopted on Monday evening a draft report on the EU’s first soil law, taking the first step towards healthy soils by 2050 by requiring countries to improve the ecological status of their soils within six to ten years.

France’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) surpassed 30% in the latest polls for the European elections, moving further away from its main rival – President Emmanuel Macron’s fading Renaissance party – while its far-right rival Reconquête! slipped and the Socialists clawed back some ground.

The European Data Protection Supervisor expressed its disappointment on Tuesday (March 12) about a treaty on Artificial Intelligence (AI) negotiated in Strasbourg this week, saying it has veered far from its original purpose.

For a fresh round-up of transport-related news, check out this week’s Transport Brief: Taking public sentiment seriously.

Look out for…

European Parliament plenary Monday – Thursday
Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni meets Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez in Madrid on Wednesday.
High Representative Josep Borrell in Washington on Wednesday.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Nathalie Weatherald]

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