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Vienna’s city council elections this October will be a critical midterm test for the ruling Social Democrats (SPÖ) and could help to determine the shape of the next government.
The Austrian capital has long been a “red” city. Since the second world war the Social Democrats have only had to share power twice.
For the past two decades it has also been led by Michael Häupl, Vienna’s — and Europe’s — longest-serving mayor.
The city is of crucial importance for the left, especially given that the SPÖ’s membership in Vienna is the largest in a capital city of any party in Europe. Mr Häupl’s control since 1994 has made him a powerbroker.
But with the populist rightwing Freedom party (FPÖ) leading national opinion polls and making strong gains in regional state elections, the 65-year-old folksy politician faces his toughest contest yet against the youthful 47-year-old FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache. A poor result could end Mr Häupl’s political career as well as demoralise his party.
That is not to say that the SPÖ is in danger of losing Rotes Wien (“Red Vienna”). According to a Gallup poll last month the party is nine points clear at 37 per cent (compared with 44.3 per cent in 2010) and its Green Party allies have 13 per cent. However, this level of support would represent the party’s worst result since the war and could have significant knock-on effects.
“The whole political system depends on the mayor,” says Johann Gudenus, Mr Strache’s deputy. He adds that the whole power of the Social Democrats nationally is based in Vienna, and his party is gradually breaking its grip.
“We have the chance to go above 30 per cent [compared with 25.8 per cent in 2010],” says Mr Gudenus. “Then our mayor would have to retire. After our mayor leaves office, there will be a rethink [of policy towards the Freedom party] in the Social Democrats.”
The idea that the SPÖ might review its partnership stance is not just a Freedom party fantasy. The Social Democrats in Burgenland, the easternmost state of Austria, have raised the possibility of forming a coalition with the FPÖ there following state elections in May.
Mr Häupl, a strong opponent of co-operating with his rightwing rivals, says that he is still aiming to win an absolute majority. During the past two decades the mayor has overseen the transformation of Vienna into a vibrant, youthful city, with strong universities and a burgeoning IT industry. Long-delayed infrastructure improvements, such as building a new main railway station, have finally been completed.
But Vienna faces big challenges that play into the Freedom party’s hands. The city’s prosperity hides pockets of relative poverty, which has been worsened in the past few years by falling real wages and rising unemployment, which at the end of 2014 hit 14 per cent, according to Eurostat.
The fast growth of Vienna’s population from 1.54m in 1995 to nearly 1.8m has put huge stress on city services and pushed up local charges. Mr Häupl acknowledges that “there is still a lot of work to do in terms of housing”: the city owns 220,000 apartments, for which there are long waiting lists.
Heavy city spending has pushed up Vienna’s debt, estimated at €4.9bn, though critics say the real figure, when debt of city-owned companies is included, is double that. Mr Häupl says that he has committed himself to balancing the city budget next year, though he adds that “it may not be the wisest thing to do”.
With slogans such as “Foreign in your own country?” the Freedom party has focused these concerns on the question of immigration to prise a large segment of working class Vienna voters away from the SPÖ. About a fifth of Vienna’s population is now foreign-born.
The FPÖ remains short of potential allies but the party says it is open to entering a coalition, despite its loss of popularity when it took part in the 1999-2002 government.
“We are ready to be part of the government but not at any price,” Mr Gudenus says.
This autumn Mr Häupl stands in their way. The mayor says that his colleagues were unanimous he should stand for a fifth term and he adds: “I feel ready to face that challenge again.”