When There’s a Communist Running City Hall

When There’s a Communist Running City Hall

When There’s a Communist Running City Hall

Elke Kahr, the mayor of Austria’s second-largest city, explains how her party built up trust over decades of organizing.

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To get an idea of how Elke Kahr understands her job, you only have to wait at her office. When I visited the communist mayor of the Austrian city of Graz one morning in early February, her two secretaries were busy taking calls from locals. “Would you want an appointment with the mayor?,” one of them asked an apparently upset caller. “What about tomorrow, 6:30 pm?” A few minutes later, the other secretary picked up the phone. “You sent us an e-mail,” she started. “I wanted to ask if you are free later this week.” Graz is no metropolis, but with nearly 300,000 inhabitants, it’s Austria’s second-largest city. As result of her approach to politics, Kahr’s workdays are almost always longer than 12 hours. Nearly every day, she meets with constituents from all backgrounds.

When Kahr’s Communist Party (KPÖ) won the local election in September 2021 with 29 percent of the vote, the news spread beyond the country’s borders. Even The New York Times published a profile of Kahr last year. The piece painted Austria’s one communist mayor in a surprisingly positive light for the paper of record—though, once you meet her, you immediately see how captivating and unpretentious the 61-year-old Kahr is.

After I’d waited 20 minutes, Kahr asked me into her office: a spacious, bright room, lined with large potted plants, with a children’s play area taking up a whole corner of the floor. We talked about her idea of communism and how the party has built trust over decades in Graz. After the interview, Kahr took me on a tour of the second floor of City Hall, introducing every single staff member to me, with a note of personal praise for each worker.

—Lukas Hermsmeier

Lukas Hermsmeier: Left-wing parties around the world dream of being in power. How did you get there?

Elke Kahr: It’s closeness and nothing else. Closeness to and genuine interest in people. Making their worries and concerns your own. I don’t care if there’s a professor sitting across the table, or someone who’s just been released from prison. I don’t care what their politics are. People with a worry or concern shouldn’t leave this room until they get their hopes up again. And it rarely happens that someone leaves without us having figured out a path forward together.

LH: Is closeness a core component of communism to you?

EK: Yes, absolutely. That’s why when people write an e-mail to us, I’ll try to arrange an appointment. There is no substitute for a personal conversation. Many believe that we are using this as a vehicle to pull people to our party. If we did that, we would have 10 times more members. Oftentimes, people we’ve helped want to give something back: Can I do something for the party? I have never taken advantage of that.

LH: The KPÖ has only 300 members in Graz. What is the electorate of the party?

EK: Workers. People who are disenfranchised from politics. Previous nonvoters, which is what we are almost most proud of. It shows that resentment doesn’t have to channel to the right if there’s a strong, truly left-wing party. At the same time, you have to emphasize that we have principles, that there are questions that you can’t give in on. Graz is there for everyone, regardless of their background. We have over 160 different nationalities in our city at the moment.

LH: When people come to your office, you not only provide emotional support. Sometimes they’ll get direct financial help. This is only possible, because you give up a large part of your salary.

EK: I’ve kept €1,950 [about $2,060] out of €6,000 since I became a councilwoman in 2005, and I continue to do so as mayor, as do the other politicians of the KPÖ. One reason is that if you earn much more than the average person, you’ll simply lose touch. The other reason is the direct help. If parents can’t afford the school trips of their children, we transfer €300 directly to the school. Or when people can’t afford the deposit for an apartment, or when it comes to medical bills. Visa extensions for migrant women are a constant issue, too. That’s exactly what I think political offices should be there for.

LH: What does one need to know about Graz to understand how a communist party could be so successful here?

EK: Graz historically has had a great industry, in the past, for example, through the Puch-Werke, which produced motorcycles and bicycles. But compared to Vienna, where there has always been a strong labor movement and also a strong socialist and social democratic party, Graz was more bourgeois and conservative in values. So we were not able to dock onto a large union movement. We built it up completely on our own.

LH: What role does time play when it comes to building such a movement?

EK: We had no other chance than to slowly build up trust. Especially in the ’80s and ’90s, anti-communism was very strong here in Graz. Back then, when we organized information booths or did campaign actions, many people didn’t even dare to talk to us in public—even if they appreciated our work. You could lose your job back then for being involved with the KPÖ. Breaking through this atmosphere was above all the achievement of two comrades, Ernest Kaltenegger and Franz Parteder, who understood that it is not enough to explain the world to people via leaflets. You must also have a practical value for people. You have to be a party that is suitable for everyday life. The fact that we managed to get out of this isolation has been, in my view, the greatest success.

LH: One key area where you have been able to build trust is housing.

EK: We started the tenants’ emergency hotline in the early 1990s, free legal advice. At the same time, we pushed forward policy changes by advocating municipal housing, building thousands of municipal apartments and purchasing land, setting up a security deposit fund and municipal rent subsidies, expanding assistance for unhoused people. In this way, we have built up political competence over decades. Housing is a good example of where the market has its deficits. The housing issue is not solved by the market.

LH: What is the difference between your politics and those of the Social Democrats?

EK: The consistency. You can’t pretend to protect common property, as the Social Democrats often do, but then sell it. And of course, our political goals are different. Everything that everyone needs must be in the public hands. Housing, education, health, energy—all of these things should be removed from the logic of profit. This also means that we don’t want to nationalize the sausage stand on the corner.

LH: As a communist mayor, you probably get into the situation of telling capitalists that they should have less in the future.

EK: Of course. When a representative of the Federation of Industries [a group representing Austria’s business interests] sits with me, we can find some common ground when it comes to the importance of the industry. But we split when it comes to the question of who skims off the profits and gains.

LH: Let’s talk about your tenure. After more than year as mayor, do you think differently about communism?

EK: Not at all. I’ve never seen myself as a classic politician. In fact, I’m uncomfortable with the term. There are so many politicians in the world who I despise from the bottom of my heart.

LH: So you basically keep doing what you’ve been doing for 40 years, only with more power?

EK: With more opportunities, yes. But you’re always learning something new, too. You get different insights into the mechanics of city government. But that doesn’t change the way I work.

LH: What have you achieved politically so far?

EK: We have expanded the social card, for example, an achievement of the KPÖ, that offers discounts for public transport and cultural institutions to people with little money. We now have an additional 10,000 people who are entitled to the social card. We’ve also made sure that many associations and initiatives have enough budget to operate. We have expanded our district social work. We have been able to purchase more land for the city so that we can build more municipal housing. We have also brought back the commissioner for women’s affairs, which the Social Democrats and the Greens had eliminated in 2014.

LH: Are you worried of not meeting the great expectations placed on you?

EK: Many people tell us that they are glad that we are in charge, especially given how raw the times are. That’s a basic trust that can feel a little bit uncomfortable, because we’re just normal people who also make mistakes. But people put an incredible amount of hope in our hands. That’s our responsibility.

LH: Where do you experience the limits of what you can do as mayor?

EK: Where the municipality has no competence. Unfortunately, we can’t pass any laws. We urgently need a tenancy law reform, for example. We can only determine limits for rent increases for our municipally owned apartments. And then, of course, we also have limits through or budget and capacities. There is a limited amount of construction workers for example.

LH: In order to be able to change laws, the KPÖ would have to be strong not only in Graz but also at the state and national level. That seems far away, though.

EK: Ernest Kaltenegger [former leading candidate of the KPÖ and city council member in Graz] won over 20 percent of the votes in Graz in 2003. At this point—at the latest—the entire party in Austria should have realized that the Graz way was the right one: our combination of concrete help, alliance work with other parties and initiatives, party building, parliamentarianism. If our federal leadership had understood this at the time, we would be standing somewhere else today throughout Austria. But this realization took place only a few years ago, through the election of a new federal leadership. We in Styria [the federal state whose capital is Graz] now work together with the federal party in a completely different way.

LH: So, you are optimistic?

EK: Yes. We now have many younger people in the KPÖ. In Salzburg, for example, we have a great political talent in Kay-Michael Dankl, who made it into the city council at his first attempt. For us, it has always been crucial to get out of the isolation, to be a party that is open and capable of forming alliances, to build the party from the bottom up, being grounded in the companies, cities, and communities. I’m glad we’re moving away from a thinking of political centralism. We want people to have their own minds and think for themselves.

LH: In Graz, the city government has not only KPÖ members but also representatives of other parties such as the conservative ÖVP. How important is compromise? What are the risks?

EK: Of course, we have to be considerate since we are in a coalition. But if we were to reach a point where we had to give up our basic positions, then we have to say: “Thank you, that’s it.” Concessions become a problem when people don’t recognize you anymore.

LH: It’s part of left-wing history that people get into office and then give up earlier convictions, adopt realpolitik logics.

EK: That’s something I preach from morning till night. The world doesn’t happen here in our offices. Life is outside. If you take this to heart, you are less likely to become a politician-politician. We constantly do public events where people can tell us anything, even insult us. In the end, it depends on the intuition of the individual politicians, on their sensitivity toward the people. We consider this when we determine our list of candidates. There always has to be a good mix: workers, intellectuals, people from different professions, women and men, people who are from other countries of origin.

LH: You mentioned the importance of moving away from centralism. How important, however, is it to also have figureheads?

EK: People vote for people. They have to be able to associate faces and names with a party. This understanding has sometimes caused irritation in the KPÖ, because some people believe that programs are enough. As I said before, the fact that the KPÖ emerged from its isolation is due, above all, to Ernest Kaltenegger, who is not only a great comrade and a good politician, but above all a great person. That is why I want to put more focus on Robert [Robert Krotzer, a 35-year-old KPÖ member, who serves as the head of the Department of Health in the government of Graz] now. I want him to take the reins.

LH: How important is internationalism for you?

EK: Solidarity beyond one’s own country is crucial. We’re in a very close relationship with the Belgian party PDA, for example, which is similarly structured to us. They also have a very charismatic figure, Peter Mertens. And they were also on the rocks in the ’70s, drifting more and more toward Maoist sectarianism. Thank God people recognized that development and changed the direction. They’ve had many doctors and nurses in their movement, which is important because the health care system in Belgium is very bad. The great achievement of the PDA is to have built free health centers all across the country, served by their own members. In the national elections in 2024, the PDA could even become the second-strongest party.

LH: Do you follow what’s happening on the left in the US?

EK: I was happy to see Bernie Sanders ascending. Every little success is important. We have to build islands of resistance.

LH: Who are the most interesting communist thinkers for you?

EK: Those who have lived their convictions. I am interested in people who put into practice what they have understood theoretically. Jaroslav Hasek is one of my favorite authors, with his book The Good Soldier Švejk, which is one of the best anti-war books, full of empathy, asking the right question: Why are wars fought? Who do they serve? At the same time, his writing is laced with humor. You will have to laugh every 10 pages.

LH: What does communism need in the 21st century to have a future?

EK: It must accept democracy. I question every avant-garde approach. As we know, a great deal of injustice has happened under the names of socialism, Marxism, and communism. We waited far too long to point out the terrible crimes Stalin committed, often against his own comrades. Stalinism has nothing to do with our view of the world in the KPÖ, with our understanding of democracy and community. I cannot change people’s consciousness through dictatorial structures. Let’s assume the KPÖ had an absolute majority—that would still not mean sole power. And if I may only give one piece of advice: Never be grim in your work as a party. You also have to organize events where you don’t bombard people with flyers and information.

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