Good job or “Stalingraz” ?: Communist becomes city hall boss in Graz

Good job or “Stalingraz”?
Communist becomes city hall boss in Graz

For the first time, a major Austrian city is getting a communist mayor: Elke Kahr. For years she has been donating two thirds of her salary to the needy. Now every child in Graz should get a bike. If the experts have their way, Kahr’s success is based on something else.

It’s politicians who really help. Elke Kahr and her two comrades-in-arms from the Communist Party (KPÖ) in Graz each donated two thirds of their salary to those in need last year. According to her, she supported 1577 poor people with 168,000 euros who, for example, had to vacate their apartments or could no longer buy anything to eat. This closeness to the citizens is one of the reasons why the communists in Graz, together with the Greens and the SPÖ, will rule Austria’s second largest city with almost 300,000 people in the future.

Two months after her sensational victory with almost 29 percent in the local elections, the 60-year-old Kahr is set to be elected the first female communist mayor of a major Austrian city during the day. “It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. In any case, I have immense humility before the task,” said Kahr shortly before taking office.

The political sensation of a KPÖ triumph in otherwise often conservative Austria does not come overnight. Political scientist Manès Weisskircher from the University of Oslo says it is the culmination of a growth process that has lasted around three decades. He analyzed the rise of the KPÖ in Graz. The party has long understood that it is important to bring about tangible improvements in living conditions, he says. Around 30 years ago, the comrades in Lille, France, inspired the KPÖ in Graz to focus entirely on the issue of housing. This was followed by projects such as a tenant emergency number, the commitment to community apartments, financial support for tenants in legal disputes and, above all, an always open ear.

“I had 4,000 to 5,000 people in my office hours every year,” says Kahr. She now wants to expand the contact options, but also get people from her team on board. In an interview with four years ago, Kahr explained that daily work depends on a solid municipal program and not on a revolution.

The election with the overthrow of the long-time mayor Siegfried Nagl from the ÖVP has now shown that the KPÖ also appeals to conservative voters. “The voters say the KPÖ makes politics as it should be. No insignia of power, always available, no aloofness,” said the Graz political scientist Heinz Wassermann to the “Tiroler Tageszeitung”.

Bicycles and German courses in the program

The alliance of KPÖ, Greens and SPÖ wants to set new priorities. This includes the campaign that every child should get a bike. Each family will receive a dedicated voucher, the amount of which has not yet been determined. Further goals are the construction of new community apartments and lowering the kindergarten fees. According to Kahr, one of the first measures is to suspend the annual inflation-adjusted increase in fees on water, sewer and garbage disposal in 2022 in order to relieve tenants. Migrants can count on more German courses and mentors in companies.

The question of the budget should be resolved thoroughly in a few months, for now the coalition will work with a budget provisional. “We are not there to build prestige projects, we want to consciously design the living space in Graz,” says the designated Vice Mayor Judith Schwentner of the Greens.

The KPÖ in Graz is now more than ever in the spotlight. After the election, the word “Stalingraz” quickly made the rounds on social networks. General political statements by Kahr also receive more attention. Compared to a Croatian newspaper, she found many positive words about Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), who once ruled ex-Yugoslavia as a dictator, and his movement of the non-aligned states. This immediately met with criticism.

Are there lessons for the left in general from the Graz KPÖ phenomenon? Weisskircher recommends the effort of working deeply into a subject instead of spreading buzzwords. “Today’s left with its dominant academic milieu dares too seldom to get involved in dry topics such as tenancy law,” says the researcher. It’s less about beautiful posters and successful election campaigns than about building long-term credibility.

For Kahr it is certain that she wants to stick to her citizen-oriented style, a fundamentally appreciative attitude towards all people and a friendly treatment of political colleagues. Many thousands of people had expressed their joy in emails that they had prevailed. She is considered “pleasantly different”, while her style is actually the most normal thing in the world. “The immense expectation frightens me a little, but I’ve never been afraid in my life.”

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