GRAZ, Austria — That the conservative mayor would win all over again, and serve a 5th time period, were handled as a foregone conclusion in Graz, Austria’s second-largest metropolis, a spot the place it’s no longer unusual to come across native citizens proudly wearing conventional lederhosen and dirndls.
Elke Kahr, the chief of town’s Communist Party, was once similarly 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 once as shocked because the journalist who informed her the election information remaining September: The Communists had emerged victorious, and he or she will be the subsequent mayor.
“He was completely bewildered — and I thought it was a joke,” Ms. Kahr recalled of her election evening 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 mentioned in her mayoral administrative center, flanked by means of 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 seeking to “redistribute wealth” up to her position lets in her to, she mentioned.
But that doesn’t imply that her Communist Party of Austria, or Okay.P.Ö., plans to dispossess the bourgeoisie or abolish the loose marketplace. Ms. Kahr mentioned her function was once “to alleviate the problems of the people in our city as much as possible.”
To an intruder paying a talk over with, town’s issues is probably not in an instant glaring.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger visits Graz, his fatherland, he strolls on blank streets previous trendy, inexpensive condominium blocks.
But there are wallet of poverty, and quite a lot of persons are suffering with emerging costs and flat wages.
And for just about 20 years, Ms. Kahr, no longer with out controversy, has dipped into her personal pocket to lend a hand folks pay for impulsively prime electrical expenses or a brand new laundry gadget. She’ll pay attention to an issue, ask for a checking account and switch some cash, most often capped at a couple of 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 fighters have accused her of vote purchasing, 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 moderate, and the €32,000 she helps to keep for herself suffices. She rides town’s buses and tramway, retail outlets at finances retail outlets and rents a modest condominium, overflowing with books and information, the place she lives together with her spouse, a retired Okay.P.Ö. professional.
Austria has an extended custom of socialism and has created an expansive welfare device. Health care is common and universities are loose.
But electorate have in large part avoided the Communist Party ever since Austrians had a front-row seat because the Soviet Union violently beaten a well-liked rebellion in neighboring Hungary in 1956. The Okay.P.Ö. hasn’t received a countrywide parliamentary seat in any election held since.
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Graz, on the other hand, has been an anomaly: With the birthday party’s center of attention on housing, charismatic Communists have sat at the City Council for the reason that Nineteen Nineties.
None had been as common as Ms. Kahr.
Supporters and critics alike describe her as approachable, delightful and a directly shooter. Constituents continuously praise her for “not being like a politician,” however extra like a social employee.
As mayor, governing in a coalition with social democrats and vegetables, she now has extra affect to influence insurance policies in instructions she favors.
So a ways, that has integrated capping residential sewage and rubbish charges in addition to rents in city-owned housing. She has made 1000’s extra citizens eligible for closely diminished annual passes for public shipping.
And she’s minimize the selling finances for all of the metropolis, in addition to subsidies for all political events.
Kurt Hohensinner, the brand new head of the Ö.V.P. in Graz, pushed aside those efforts as extra symbolic than substantive. Predicting how town would fare beneath Ms. Kahr’s management, he mentioned, “Graz won’t suffer from communism, but 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 citizens their very own subway line.
Instead, town will quickly have a brand new administrative center for social and housing products and services and extra backed residences.
Housing, Ms. Kahr says, is closest to her middle. It’s additionally the problem that constructed the Communists’ emblem in Graz.
Fearing annihilation on the finish of the Cold War, they opened a tenant emergency hotline, giving loose criminal recommendation on doubtful condominium agreements, looming evictions and the failure of landlords to go back safety deposits.
Poor and rich, left and proper, referred to as, and phrase of mouth unfold: The Communists care. Often, Ms. Kahr responded the telephone.
As mayor, Ms. Kahr tries to be a well-recognized presence at the metropolis’s streets.
Jumping off the bus at Triestersiedlung, probably the most metropolis’s poorer neighborhoods, outlined by means of its 1,200 backed residences, Ms. Kahr complimented the landlord on her automobile, an extraordinary Soviet-made Lada, then headed into the shaded courtyard of a social housing block.
The facades of the condominium structures have been freshly painted, and in this sunny afternoon, its low-income citizens have been basking on their lately built balconies. It’s a luxurious maximum non-public residences in Graz lack and person who Ms. Kahr driven for as a councilor.
As she dispensed raised flower beds so citizens may just develop their very own tomatoes and herbs, considered one of them approached and lauded “Elke” for “still coming to visit us, now that you’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 lifestyles at a kids’s house. Just shy of her 4th birthday, she was once followed. The tale is going she cheekily requested a visiting couple for a banana protruding in their grocery bag; inspired by means of the little lady’s loss of shyness, the couple followed her.
Her father, a welder, and her mom, a waitress-turned-homemaker, rented a shack in Triestersiedlung. They fetched water from a neatly and tended chickens, geese and rabbits. Their rest room was once an outhouse.
Some of her playmates lived in barracks left over from World War II and trudged during the snow in sandals.
“If you grow up in this social environment, you can only pursue a socially just world,” Ms. Kahr mentioned.
Yet she by no means felt she lacked the rest: She remembered devouring the books within the housing venture’s library. On Saturdays, when the circle of relatives visited the general public bathhouse, little Elke splurged by means of maxing out her time within the bath to half-hour.
As a tender grownup she drove to rock live shows throughout Europe (she likes maximum tune, she mentioned, together with socially mindful rap, “though Eminem, not so much”) and tracked down her beginning mom, a farm lady. Her organic father was once 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 mentioned.
Rebuked for “speaking like a Communist” rising up, Ms. Kahr was once 18 when she made up our minds to determine why.
She appeared up the birthday party’s deal with within the telephone e book and headed over to the native headquarters.
“She was a godsend,” mentioned Ernest Kaltenegger, her mentor and predecessor because the birthday party’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 once operating at closed when she was once 24, Mr. Kaltenegger persuaded her to turn out to be the second one worker of Graz’s Okay.P.Ö. During a six-month find out about 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 fascinated by her younger son, Franz.
In the Nineteen Nineties, Mr. Kaltenegger campaigned on putting in bogs in all of Graz’s social housing residences, and grew to become the Communists into a neighborhood political pillar. He later moved directly to the state stage at the situation that Ms. Kahr took over the Communist mantle in Graz.
She did, and were given off to a stumbling get started. Leading the birthday party within the 2008 election, she misplaced part his electorate.
But inside of 5 years, she had grew to become the Communists into town’s second-strongest birthday party. One most probably issue within the birthday party’s win remaining yr was once rising discontent in Graz over a building increase that was once snapping up the remaining plots of undeveloped land. In a Okay.P.Ö.-organized referendum in 2018, an strangely prime voter turnout successfully blocked the rezoning of an agriculture college’s land, a memorable victory for the birthday party.
Often, complaint arises no longer from Ms. Kahr’s paintings, however her unabashed embody of ideology. For instance, her admiration for the previous Yugoslavia, a multiethnic and nonaligned state run by means of a dictator, displays a “historical stubbornness,” mentioned Christian Fleck, a sociology professor on the University of Graz.
But constituents don’t appear to care, together with her approval score in June status at 65 p.c.
As mayor, she continues assembly often with individuals who want lend a hand, as she did when she was once a councilor and logged greater than 3,000 visits a yr from unmarried moms, the unemployed or folks in precarious housing eventualities.
Dragging on a cigarette, a vice she will be able to’t give up, Ms. Kahr mirrored on why Communism failed in other places.
“It just depends,” she mentioned, “on whether the leaders also live by it.”