In the three-days elections to the Austrian Students’ Union (ÖH) held from May 18-20, social democratic students group Socialist Students of Austria (VSStÖ) emerged victorious with 24.6% votes. The turnout for the elections was low at 15.79%, almost 10% lower than the previous elections. Green political group GRAS came in second with 21.7% votes. Aktionsgemeinschaft (AG) was displaced from first place to third with 21% votes. Communist student groups like the Communist Student Association (KSV-KJÖ) and KSV-Left List increased their vote share to 3.7% and 4.5%, respectively.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the neoliberal policies of the incumbent Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)-Green coalition have undermined the public higher education system and the livelihoods of students across Austria. Classes have been disrupted, several students have lost their part-time jobs, income and accommodation, and many have been forced to quit courses during the pandemic. The government also tried to impose unpopular reforms like UG Novelle, which imposed higher grade point average requirements for students to pass their courses and as such has increased the distress of students in the country. Student union activities for securing students’ rights during the pandemic period have not been very effective due to partisan conflicts. Around the end of the tenure of the ÖH last executive, the incumbent center-left coalition of VSStÖ, GRAS and FLO had fallen apart and the chairmanship of the ÖH went to AG.
According to reports, the difficulties posed by the pandemic and a general disenchantment among the students with the insensitive policies of the government with the complicity of the previous ÖH leadership can explain the historic decline in voter turnout in this year’s ÖH elections despite the introduction of postal ballots. The KSV-KJÖ has alleged that with reforms to the electoral laws in universities, the authorities have tried to favor major student groups linked to mainstream political parties and marginalize smaller political groups like the KSV.
KSV-KJÖ stated that “despite such electoral hurdles the KSV-KJÖ was able to run at 12 universities and secured 3.7% votes and two representatives at the federal level of the ÖH. The KSV-KJÖ was able to win a mandate at the Vienna university after a long time, increased votes in Linz (from 1.9% to 3.1%), maintained its vote share in Innsbruck (2.6%) and in Graz, and the KSV-KJÖ was able to secure an additional mandate at the Karl-Franzens-University as well as return to the TU Graz.”
The ÖH is a statutory body formed in 1946 which serves as a representative body of all university students in Austria. The student representatives at the ÖH executive are elected by bi-annual elections held at universities, technical colleges (FH) and teacher training colleges (PH) across Austria.