In Wealthy City, a Marxist Mayor Wins Over Voters

GRAZ, Austria — That the conservative mayor would win but once more, and serve a fifth time period, had been handled as a foregone conclusion in Graz, Austria’s second-largest metropolis, a spot the place it’s not unusual to come across native residents proudly wearing conventional lederhosen and dirndls.

Elke Kahr, the chief of the town’s Communist Celebration, was equally satisfied she would lose once more to the slick inheritor to a buying and selling dynasty who had led the town for 18 years.

So she was as shocked because the journalist who advised her the election information final September: The Communists had emerged victorious, and she or he could be the subsequent mayor.

“He was utterly bewildered — and I believed it was a joke,” Ms. Kahr recalled of her election evening dialog with the reporter at Metropolis Corridor.

Newspapers throughout Europe began calling the town “Leningraz,” a moniker the brand new mayor smiles about.

“Sure, one hundred pc, I’m a satisfied Marxist,” Ms. Kahr mentioned in her mayoral workplace, flanked by the used Ikea cabinets with which she displaced the stately furnishings of her predecessor, Siegfried Nagl, of the Austrian Individuals’s Celebration, or Ö.V.P.

Ms. Kahr, 60, is now attempting to “redistribute wealth” as a lot as her function permits her to, she mentioned.

However that doesn’t imply that her Communist Celebration of Austria, or Ok.P.Ö., plans to dispossess the bourgeoisie or abolish the free market. Ms. Kahr mentioned her aim was “to alleviate the issues of the individuals in our metropolis as a lot as attainable.” 

To an outsider paying a go to, the town’s issues won’t be instantly apparent.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger visits Graz, his hometown, he strolls on clear streets previous fashionable, inexpensive house blocks.

However there are pockets of poverty, and loads of individuals are scuffling with rising costs and flat wages.

And for almost twenty years, Ms. Kahr, not with out controversy, has dipped into her personal pocket to assist individuals pay for unexpectedly excessive electrical payments or a brand new laundry machine. She’ll hearken to an issue, ask for a checking account and switch some cash, often capped at just a few hundred euros.

Throughout her political profession, she has given away about three-quarters of her post-tax wage. Since turning into a metropolis councilor in 2005, Ms. Kahr’s handouts have amounted to multiple million euros, or roughly $1,020,000.

Political opponents have accused her of vote shopping for, however “they’re free to do the identical,” Ms. Kahr famous. “Moreover, it’s not charity,” she added. “I’m merely satisfied that politicians make an excessive amount of.”

As mayor, her wage of about €120,000 after taxes is greater than 4 instances the nationwide common, and the €32,000 she retains for herself suffices. She rides the town’s buses and tramway, outlets at funds shops and rents a modest house, overflowing with books and data, the place she lives together with her companion, a retired Ok.P.Ö. official.

Austria has a protracted custom of socialism and has created an expansive welfare system. Well being care is common and universities are free.

However voters have largely shunned the Communist Celebration ever since Austrians had a front-row seat because the Soviet Union violently crushed a preferred rebellion in neighboring Hungary in 1956. The Ok.P.Ö. hasn’t gained a nationwide parliamentary seat in any election held since.  

Graz, nonetheless, has been an anomaly: With the social gathering’s concentrate on housing, charismatic Communists have sat on the Metropolis Council because the Nineteen Nineties.

None have been as in style as Ms. Kahr.  

Supporters and critics alike describe her as approachable, nice and a straight shooter. Constituents typically praise her for “not being like a politician,” however extra like a social employee.

As mayor, governing in a coalition with social democrats and greens, she now has extra affect to steer insurance policies in instructions she favors.

To date, that has included capping residential sewage and rubbish charges in addition to rents in city-owned housing. She has made 1000’s extra residents eligible for closely lowered annual passes for public transport.  

And he or she’s lower the advertising and marketing funds for your entire metropolis, in addition to subsidies for all political events.

Kurt Hohensinner, the brand new head of the Ö.V.P. in Graz, dismissed these efforts as extra symbolic than substantive. Predicting how the town would fare underneath Ms. Kahr’s management, he mentioned, “Graz gained’t undergo from communism, however from standstill.”

Notably, Ms. Kahr additionally canceled a number of status initiatives, together with an Ö.V.P.-led proposal to provide Graz’s 300,000 residents their very own subway line.

As an alternative, the town will quickly have a brand new workplace for social and housing providers and extra sponsored flats.

Housing, Ms. Kahr says, is closest to her coronary heart. It’s additionally the difficulty that constructed the Communists’ model in Graz.

Fearing annihilation on the finish of the Chilly Conflict, they opened a tenant emergency hotline, giving free authorized recommendation on doubtful rental agreements, looming evictions and the failure of landlords to return safety deposits.

Poor and rich, left and proper, known as, and phrase of mouth unfold: The Communists care. Usually, Ms. Kahr answered the telephone.

As mayor, Ms. Kahr tries to be a well-known presence on the town’s streets.

Leaping off the bus at Triestersiedlung, one of many metropolis’s poorer neighborhoods, outlined by its 1,200 sponsored flats, Ms. Kahr complimented the proprietor on her automobile, a uncommon Soviet-made Lada, then headed into the shaded courtyard of a social housing block.

The facades of the house buildings have been freshly painted, and on this sunny afternoon, its low-income residents have been basking on their not too long ago constructed balconies. It’s a luxurious most personal flats in Graz lack and one which Ms. Kahr pushed for as a councilor.  

As she distributed raised flower beds so residents might develop their very own tomatoes and herbs, one among them approached and lauded “Elke” for “nonetheless coming to go to us, now that you just’re mayor.” 

Ms. Kahr reminded the girl that she, too, had grown up there.

Given up for adoption at beginning, Ms. Kahr spent the primary years of her life at a youngsters’s house. Simply shy of her 4th birthday, she was adopted. The story goes she cheekily requested a visiting couple for a banana protruding of their grocery bag; impressed by the little lady’s lack of shyness, the couple adopted her.

Her father, a welder, and her mom, a waitress-turned-homemaker, rented a shack in Triestersiedlung. They fetched water from a effectively and tended chickens, geese and rabbits. Their rest room was an outhouse.

A few of her playmates lived in barracks left over from World Conflict II and trudged by means of the snow in sandals.

“In case you develop up on this social atmosphere, you possibly can solely pursue a socially simply world,” Ms. Kahr mentioned.

But she by no means felt she lacked something: She remembered devouring the books within the housing challenge’s library. On Saturdays, when the household visited the general public bathhouse, little Elke splurged by maxing out her time within the tub to half-hour.

As a younger grownup she drove to rock concert events throughout Europe (she likes most music, she mentioned, together with socially acutely aware rap, “although Eminem, not a lot”) and tracked down her beginning mom, a farm lady. Her organic father was a pupil from Iran.

The assembly wasn’t to foster a bond, however “to inform her that, regardless of the explanations for her choice, for me it was good,” Ms. Kahr mentioned.

Rebuked for “talking like a Communist” rising up, Ms. Kahr was 18 when she determined to seek out out why.

She appeared up the social gathering’s tackle within the telephone ebook and headed over to the native headquarters.

“She was a godsend,” mentioned Ernest Kaltenegger, her mentor and predecessor because the social gathering’s native head. “Not like different younger individuals who burn vibrant for a short while — she was critical.” 

When the financial institution department she was working at closed when she was 24, Mr. Kaltenegger persuaded her to develop into the second worker of Graz’s Ok.P.Ö. Throughout a six-month research in Moscow in 1989, she adopted the passionate debates there on reform, and believed that “they’d flip the nook.”

Two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved.

Ms. Kahr consoled her older comrades, and centered on her younger son, Franz.

Within the Nineteen Nineties, Mr. Kaltenegger campaigned on putting in loos in all of Graz’s social housing flats, and turned the Communists into an area political pillar. He later moved on to the state stage on the situation that Ms. Kahr took over the Communist mantle in Graz.

She did, and acquired off to a stumbling begin. Main the social gathering within the 2008 election, she misplaced half his voters.

However inside 5 years, she had turned the Communists into the town’s second-strongest social gathering. One possible issue within the social gathering’s win final 12 months was rising discontent in Graz over a development increase that was snapping up the final plots of undeveloped land. In a Ok.P.Ö.-organized referendum in 2018, an unusually excessive voter turnout successfully blocked the rezoning of an agriculture faculty’s land, a memorable victory for the social gathering.

Usually, criticism arises not from Ms. Kahr’s work, however her unabashed embrace of ideology. For instance, her admiration for the previous Yugoslavia, a multiethnic and nonaligned state run by a dictator, exhibits a “historic stubbornness,” mentioned Christian Fleck, a sociology professor on the College of Graz.

However constituents don’t appear to care, together with her approval rating in June standing at 65 p.c.

As mayor, she continues assembly frequently with individuals who need assistance, as she did when she was a councilor and logged greater than 3,000 visits a 12 months from single moms, the unemployed or individuals in precarious housing conditions.

Dragging on a cigarette, a vice she will’t give up, Ms. Kahr mirrored on why Communism failed elsewhere.

“It simply relies upon,” she mentioned, “on whether or not the leaders additionally stay by it.”

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