Yes, this Communist politician in Graz, Austria, wants to redistribute wealth, but a focus on housing, her own modest lifestyle and a hard childhood have helped her popularity.
The proudly Marxist mayor of Graz, Austria, was adopted at 4 and raised poor, with an outhouse for a toilet and a weekly trip to public baths. “If you grow up in this social environment, you can only pursue a socially just world,” the mayor said.
But voters have largely shunned the Communist Party ever since Austrians had a front-row seat as the Soviet Union violently crushed a popular uprising in neighboring Hungary in 1956. The K.P.Ö. hasn’t won a national parliamentary seat in any election held since.
As mayor, governing in a coalition with social democrats and greens, she now has more influence to steer policies in directions she favors. Notably, Ms. Kahr also canceled several prestige projects, including an Ö.V.P.-led proposal to give Graz’s 300,000 residents their own subway line.
GRAZ, Austria—That the conservative mayor would win but once more, and serve a fifth term, had been handled as a foregone conclusion in Graz, Austria’s second-largest metropolis, a place the place it’s not unusual to come across native residents proudly wearing conventional lederhosen and dirndls.
Elke Kahr, the chief of town’s Communist Party, was equally satisfied she would lose once more to the slick inheritor to a buying and selling dynasty who had led 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 he or she can be the subsequent mayor.
“He was completely bewildered — and I thought it was a joke,” Ms. Kahr recalled of her election night time dialog with the reporter at City Hall.
Newspapers throughout Europe began calling town “Leningraz,” a moniker the brand-new mayor smiles about.
“Yes, 100 percent, I’m a convinced Marxist,” Ms. Kahr stated 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 People’s Party, or Ö.V.P.
Ms. Kahr, 60, is now attempting to “redistribute wealth” as a lot as her position permits her to, she stated.
But that doesn’t imply that her Communist Party of Austria, or Okay.P.Ö., plans to dispossess the bourgeoisie or abolish the free market. Ms. Kahr stated her purpose was “to alleviate the problems of the people in our city as much as possible.”
To an outsider paying a go to, town’s issues won’t be instantly apparent.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger visits Graz, his hometown, he strolls on clear streets previous fashionable, reasonably priced residence blocks.
But there are pockets of poverty, and loads of persons are battling rising costs and flat wages.
And for almost 20 years, Ms. Kahr, not with out controversy, has dipped into her personal pocket to assist folks pay for unexpectedly excessive electrical payments or a new laundry machine. She’ll hearken to a downside, ask for a checking account and switch some cash, often capped at a few hundred euros.
During 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 a couple of million euros, or roughly $1,020,000.
Political opponents have accused her of vote shopping for, however “they’re free to do the same,” Ms. Kahr famous. “Besides, it’s not charity,” she added. “I’m simply convinced that politicians make too much.”
As mayor, her wage of about €120,000 after taxes is greater than 4 occasions the nationwide common, and the €32,000 she retains for herself suffices. She rides town’s buses and tramway, retailers at price range shops and rents a modest residence, overflowing with books and information, the place she lives together with her associate, a retired Okay.P.Ö. official.
Austria has a lengthy custom of socialism and has created an expansive welfare system. Health care is common and universities are free.
But voters have largely shunned the Communist Party ever since Austrians had a front-row seat because the Soviet Union violently crushed a widespread rebellion in neighboring Hungary in 1956. The Okay.P.Ö. hasn’t gained a nationwide parliamentary seat in any election held since.
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Graz, nonetheless, has been an anomaly: With the occasion’s deal with housing, charismatic Communists have sat on the City Council because the Nineteen Nineties.
None have been as widespread 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.
So far, that has included capping residential sewage and rubbish charges in addition to rents in city-owned housing. She has made hundreds extra residents eligible for closely lowered annual passes for public transport.
And she’s lower the advertising price range for the whole 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 town would fare beneath Ms. Kahr’s management, he stated, “Graz won’t suffer from communism, but from standstill.”
Notably, Ms. Kahr additionally canceled a number of status tasks, together with an Ö.V.P.-led proposal to present Graz’s 300,000 residents their very own subway line.
Instead, town will quickly have a new workplace for social and housing providers and extra backed flats.
Housing, Ms. Kahr says, is closest to her coronary heart. It’s additionally the problem that constructed the Communists’ model in Graz.
Fearing annihilation on the finish of the Cold War, 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, referred to as, and phrase of mouth unfold: The Communists care. Often, Ms. Kahr answered the telephone.
As mayor, Ms. Kahr tries to be a acquainted presence on town’s streets.
Jumping off the bus at Triestersiedlung, one of many metropolis’ poorer neighborhoods, outlined by its 1,200 backed flats, Ms. Kahr complimented the proprietor on her automotive, a uncommon Soviet-made Lada, then headed into the shaded courtyard of a social housing block.
The facades of the residence buildings had been freshly painted, and on this sunny afternoon, its low-income residents had been basking on their lately 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 may develop their very own tomatoes and herbs, one in all them approached and lauded “Elke” for “still coming to visit us, now that you’re mayor.”
Ms. Kahr reminded the lady that she, too, had grown up there.
Given up for adoption at beginning, Ms. Kahr spent the primary years of her life at a kids’s residence. Just 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 woman’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 properly and tended chickens, geese and rabbits. Their bathroom was an outhouse.
Some of her playmates lived in barracks left over from World War II and trudged by the snow in sandals.
“If you grow up in this social environment, you can only pursue a socially just world,” Ms. Kahr stated.
Yet she by no means felt she lacked something: She remembered devouring the books within the housing undertaking’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 live shows throughout Europe (she likes most music, she stated, together with socially acutely aware rap, “though Eminem, not so much”) and tracked down her beginning mom, a farm woman. Her organic father was a scholar from Iran.
The assembly wasn’t to foster a bond, however “to tell her that, no matter the reasons for her decision, for me it was perfect,” Ms. Kahr stated.
Rebuked for “speaking like a Communist” rising up, Ms. Kahr was 18 when she determined to search out why.
She regarded up the occasion’s handle within the telephone ebook and headed over to the native headquarters.
“She was a godsend,” stated Ernest Kaltenegger, her mentor and predecessor because the occasion’s native head. “Not like other young people who burn bright for a little while — she was serious.”
When the financial institution department she was working at closed when she was 24, Mr. Kaltenegger persuaded her to grow to be the second worker of Graz’s Okay.P.Ö. During a six-month examine in Moscow in 1989, she adopted the passionate debates there on reform, and believed that “they’d turn the corner.”
Two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved.
Ms. Kahr consoled her older comrades, and centered on her younger son, Franz.
In the Nineteen Nineties, Mr. Kaltenegger campaigned on putting in loos in all of Graz’s social housing flats, and turned the Communists into a native political pillar. He later moved on to the state degree on the situation that Ms. Kahr took over the Communist mantle in Graz.
She did, and acquired off to a stumbling begin. Leading the occasion within the 2008 election, she misplaced half his voters.
But inside 5 years, she had turned the Communists into town’s second-strongest occasion. One doubtless issue within the occasion’s win final 12 months was rising discontent in Graz over a building growth that was snapping up the final plots of undeveloped land. In an Okay. P.Ö.-organized referendum in 2018, an unusually excessive voter turnout successfully blocked the rezoning of an agriculture college’s land, a memorable victory for the occasion.
Often, 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, reveals a “historical stubbornness,” stated Christian Fleck, a sociology professor on the University of Graz.
But constituents don’t appear to care, together with her approval ranking in June standing at 65 %.
As mayor, she continues assembly commonly 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 folks in precarious housing conditions.
Dragging on a cigarette, a vice she will not give up, Ms. Kahr mirrored on why Communism failed elsewhere.
“It just depends,” she stated, “on whether the leaders also live by it.”
Photo: The iconic bell tower in the wealthy city of Graz, Austria, which is led by a Communist mayor, Elke Kahr. Source: Marylise Vigneau for The New York Times.