On Monday 5 June, Austria’s social democratic party, the SPÖ, made an astonishing announcement. At the special party conference two days beforehand, the leadership race between Hans-Peter Doskozil and Andreas Babler was to be decided by an assembly of 609 appointed delegates at a special party conference. Babler gave an impassioned speech that brought a standing ovation, yet it was to no avail. The results came in: out of 596 valid ballots, Doskozil had won with 316 to Babler’s 279. As Doskozil gave his victory speech and Babler congratulated him magnanimously, journalist, Martin Thür, was quick to spot an error in the SPÖ’s published results: ‘316 plus 279 equals 595, not 596’. So, where did this extra vote come from? The electoral commission at the conference in Linz called SPÖ headquarters in Vienna, but with party staff off work for the rest of the day and Sunday, the SPÖ’s voting committee would only reconvene on Monday and find the missing vote was far from the only error. Astonishingly, they found the votes on an Excel spreadsheet had been mixed up and attributed to the wrong candidates. Andreas’ Andi’ Babler, the socialist mayor of the small, Lower Austrian town of Traiskirchen, had, in fact, won by 317 votes to 280 and would be the new leader of the SPÖ.
Despite the acrimonious circumstances, Babler’s rise to the SPÖ leadership is a remarkable coup, and the tempered elation among Babler’s circle will certainly feel better than what Doskozil and his supporters are feeling. Poison chalice, or not, a principled, left-wing social democrat now leads Austria’s opposition and is uniquely capable of making hay of the crisis his predecessors have sown. Babler stood as an outsider to the ‘puppet show’ that was the drawn-out political feuding between former leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner and Doskozil in the months prior to the leadership vote. He has pointedly criticised the archaic structures of the party, the unaccountability of its elites, and the opacity of its decision-making processes, all of which came to a head in the events of the last few days. By the time the initial embarrassment passes, Babler will have a strengthened mandate to deliver on his campaign promises. He will be best placed to start afresh, having played no role in this debacle, with his calls for a new direction for social democracy well and truly vindicated.
The story will sound all too familiar to many readers: a rank outsider with socialist credentials stands for the party leadership and inspires a grassroots movement to shift the country’s political direction towards democratic socialism. Babler’s campaign was predicated on mobilising the SPÖ’s membership base, and it is no exaggeration to say the legacy of the Corbyn movement and Momentum made a crucial difference. Babler beat incumbent Pamela Rendi-Wagner by the margin of a mere 175 votes in the members’ vote, granting him the political legitimacy to stand in the run-off vote with Doskozil at the party conference. These votes were secured by the efforts of inspired campaigners, such as those in Solidarität, who put into practice what they had learned from the international Corbyn Brigades in late 2019. Without the tireless organisation of such dedicated volunteers in the form of social media campaigns, live events, and phone banking among the SPÖ’s greying membership, Babler would not have made it this far.
It is less than three months since all of this began, when in March 2023, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the first woman to lead the SPÖ, was forced by the party board to contend a snap leadership election intended to be between her and SPÖ leader of Burgenland state, Hans-Peter Doskozil. This came after years of public criticism from Doskozil against her leadership. With two days until the registration deadline for new candidates, Andi Babler threw his hat into the ring and changed the script entirely, but coming from a position of relative obscurity, he had a mountain to climb. His plan was to galvanise the grassroots membership and travel to every corner of Austria on his campaign trail. What started as an unedifying duel between two party elites thus turned into a substantial debate over democratic socialist policies and a bid to save the SPÖ from its own incoherence.
Rejuvinating the Left
Under Rendi-Wagner, the SPÖ could not take advantage of the persistent scandals and corruption surrounding the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) or their hapless coalition government partners, the Greens (die Grünen). The party that made Red Vienna struggled to establish itself as a desirable alternative despite this government’s highly publicised scandals and shortcomings. The federal state election results in 2023 gave a bleak prognosis, with the SPÖ losing vote shares in three separate state senate elections in Lower Austria, Carinthia and Salzburg State. In the election for Babler’s home state of Lower Austria in January, the party dropped to its lowest-ever vote share from 23.92 percent to 20.65 percent and was leapfrogged by the far-right FPÖ, which finished in second place. Then in the Carinthia elections in March, they lost three of their eighteen seats in the state senate as their vote share fell from 47.9 percent to 38.9 percent. While the leadership race raged on in April, the Salzburg State elections saw the SPÖ lose out again, with its vote share falling from 20 percent to 17.9 percent, as the FPÖ overtook them into second place again, while at the same time, the Austrian Communist Party surged to an all-time high of 11.5 percent.
Rendi-Wagner’s efforts to lead the party had long been undermined by her tormentor-in-chief within the party, Hans-Peter Doskozil. Doskozil is a former police chief and now leads the state of Burgenland’s SPÖ chapter. In recent times he has bucked the trend that has befallen the SPÖ in other states by running a tightly organised state party. Doskozil’s policy platform calls for an increase in social provisions, not dissimilar to Rendi-Wagner or Babler’s offerings. However, his advocacy for a much harsher border policy, resembling that of Denmark’s social democrats, and his overtures to ÖVP and FPÖ voters place him firmly on the party’s right. Babler, in contrast, promised to democratise the party’s alienating hierarchical structures, which locks out most of its party affiliates from major decision-making. Instead of the typical backroom deals and party policy imposed from above, he promises to give SPÖ party members the power to meaningfully participate in a truly democratic socialist party.
Babler’s candidacy had clearly given this leadership election a much greater significance, and between him announcing his candidacy on the 23 March and the registration deadline at 10pm the day after, 9000 people had joined the party for the chance to vote. The registration period was subsequently extended, facillitating an influx of new members.
A Different Kind of Politics
In March, very few people in Austria had heard of Andi Babler. It was generally the case that, the more people found out, the more they liked him; and people are certainly finding out now. Babler comes from the small town of Traiskirchen in Lower Austria, where he has been mayor since 2014. The town of 21,000 is home to the Semperit rubber factory, where Babler’s father was employed. His politics were forged by the shared experience of his family and neighbours struggling together against the profiteering whims of Semperit’s multinational parent company, Continental Tyres, who constantly threatened to outsource jobs abroad. Continental ultimately moved tyre production from Semperit to the Czech Republic in 2002. Babler himself trained as a metalworker and worked in the Vöslauer mineral water factory before studying for a Masters in political communication. Notwithstanding this qualification, Babler’s greatest strength is that he does not speak or act like a typical politician. In his FC St. Pauli jacket and jeans, he cuts a down-to-earth, friendly figure who unapologetically wears his politics on his sleeve. Above all, he relishes the opportunity to be with the people, listen to their problems, and offer help where he can. That he and his wife produce wine on a small plot only adds to his relatablity to Austrian voters.
Babler has been an elected member of Traiskirchen council since 1995, and in city hall since 2007. When he was elected mayor in 2014, he increased his SPÖ predecessor’s mandate from 60 percent to 73 percent. Traiskirchen hosted Austria’s biggest refugee registration centre at the time, which was ill-equipped for dealing with the number of asylum applicants. When Babler took the ‘impossible job’ as mayor, he set to work against the Conservative government’s dysfunctional asylum system, not by pandering to the xenophobic whims of his right-wing opponents, but by campaigning for a humane asylum policy whereby asylum seekers would be given due process and provided with accommodation all across the country. This refugee-friendly approach did not harm his popularity as he won re-election in 2020 at a canter with a 71.5 percent mandate. A Traiskirchen resident pithily summed up the reason for his almost universal popularity in his home town: ‘…he represents a different kind of politics to what the others do these days, and I think people like that.’
Babler has shown his ability to transfer his local popularity into broader political support. In the aforementioned Lower Austria state elections this year, where the SPÖ performed historically poorly, Babler’s performance was the one saving grace. Placed last in the thirty-five candidate long Lower Austria SPÖ list, Babler was not fancied by superiors in his own party, but nevertheless, he travelled across all 19,000 square kilometres of the state, an area roughly the size of Wales, on his campaign trail. Ultimately, he gathered an impressive 21,273 first preference votes, making him the best performing, non-leading candidate out of all candidates in the election by some distance (by comparison the SPÖ lead candidate, Franz Schnabl, returned 24,223 first preference votes). Babler was not allowed to take a seat in the state senate while still being mayor of Traiskirchen, but gained an extra salary which he donated to causes tackling child poverty. Babler has fought constantly for this cause, championing social initiatives that provide free school meals, kindergarten and after-school care for children from socially disadvantaged families in his hometown and elsewhere. His placement of these issues at the heart of his campaign teased out some bizarre challenges from opponents outside the SPÖ, such as when right-wing journalist Rosmarie Schwaiger claimed, ‘I do not see where there are any hungry children in Austria’. However, such challenges only served to bring these issues onto the national media agenda.
Community-led initiatives that fight poverty are characteristic of Babler’s politics, but his other prerogative as SPÖ leader is to tackle the alienation and frustration that members have with their party. With the events of the past few days, this mood will have only intensified. The results of the membership vote on 22 May only complicated matters, as the party was split three ways, with Rendi-Wagner fetching 31.35 percent, Babler 31.52 percent and Doskozil 33.53 percent. Rendi-Wagner stepped down as she had previously agreed to do in the event she did not win, and Babler called for a run-off between him and Doskozil to ensure a clear mandate for the new leader. The SPÖ instead decided on a vote among senior party delegates at the special conference arranged for 3 June.
Michaela Grubesa, who happened to be the partner of Doskozil’s chief campaign strategist, led the electoral commission, and called a fateful press conference on Monday afternoon to announce the news that would change the course of Austrian politics. Hilariously, the mix-up was a result of the SPÖ electoral organisers’ inexperience with democratic selections. They were accustomed to conference votes only ever involving a single, uncontested candidate, where a strike through the candidate’s name is typically considered a negative vote. This time, however, a strike through the candidate’s name counted as a vote in favour, but the SPÖ staff members, following the usual procedure of a vote at party conference, entered these votes into the spreadsheet in a manner that subtracted them from the total number of votes, giving the inverse result. The errors of Monday 5 June will be riffed on at every vote count and close contest in the German-speaking world for years. Whether people joke with glee or with gallows humour will now depend on the success of the Babler movement. It is not ideal that his first days in office will be tainted by the calamity of his predecessors, but if this is the price to pay for the chance to carry the hopes of millions of people in Austria, who long for the sort of transformational social democratic policies unseen since the days of Bruno Kreisky, Andi Babler and his voter base will pay it gladly.