Graz – The Marxist in the town hall on the Mur

In the Volkshaus of the Graz KPÖ, Elke Kahr receives not only the “Wiener Zeitung” for a late evening interview, an older woman who needs her help. The woman carefully sits down on a wooden bench. Shortly after taking a seat, the election winner and future mayor of Graz rushes over – a cigarette clamped between her teeth, her glasses tucked into her hair.

Elke Kahr will be elected Mayor of Graz this Wednesday.  In addition to the communists, the SPÖ and the Greens are also represented in the new city coalition.  - © apa / Erwin Scheriau

Elke Kahr will be elected Mayor of Graz this Wednesday. In addition to the communists, the SPÖ and the Greens are also represented in the new city coalition. – © apa / Erwin Scheriau

The elderly lady is unable to finish the praise she has just begun about Kahr’s strength, zeal and commitment, and she asks Kahr into her office with a pile of files in her arms. Ten minutes later, the pensioner leaves the local politician’s office, visibly moved. Sobbing, she says goodbye to Kahr with the words “You are the best – really – thank you”. “You have to go left, past the shopping center and then get on the 39 bus – then you will be faster,” Kahr calls after the woman who has not asked for directions.

Close to the needs of the citizens

In her political career, Kahr has had countless such conversations. Kahr paid for an unexpectedly high electricity bill, a replacement for a broken washing machine, or even a debt collection request to other people out of pocket.

Kahr’s predecessor, Ernest Kaltenegger, had already started citizen consultation hours at the end of the 1990s. While the then Federal Chancellor Viktor Klima (SPÖ) hired spin doctors in the Chancellery, the KPÖ focused on being close to the citizens. An approach that the Graz communists have not given up to this day. In total, Kahr has transferred 900,000 euros to fellow citizens in her political career. As mayor, Kahr wants to treat herself to a small increase in salary: “Of the almost 14,000 euros gross, I’ll probably keep 2000 euros,” she says.

With this style, Kahr, who describes herself as a “staunch communist” but is often disrespectfully called a Robin Hood politician by her critics, made it to the Graz town hall. The way there led them via detours. The now 60-year-old made her first steps in local politics at the age of 17. At that time, she still had to look up the KPÖ’s address in the telephone directory. In addition to working, Kahr had then imitated the evening school leaving certificate and participated in communist events in her free time. In order to get to where she wants to go, the Graz politician no longer needs a phone book. Kahr knows where her path should go and how she has to face it: “With the same commitment as in recent years, with a policy for the people.”

In 1985, Kahr joined the KPÖ during the period of Soviet communism. Above all, she was shaped by her origins. Growing up in the glamorous and prejudiced district of Gries, Kahr lived until she was 18 in a small apartment consisting of an anteroom, kitchen and a small room. Instead of running water there was a fountain. Despite the modest circumstances, Kahr had “a very happy childhood,” as she says.

Kahr is still humble today. When she talks about her inferior colleague, Kahr shows pity. She sympathized with Siegfried Nagl, whom she denied a fifth term as city chief with her election victory, and understood the human disappointment of the ÖVP politician, she says. When the first extrapolation arrived after the municipal council election on September 26th, she was “completely surprised”.

In the office with Marx

Kahr only comes across as genuinely angry when she is confronted with the accusation of her critics that she is buying votes with the donations and support. “I have never asked someone I have supported, where they come from or what they are voting for. In any case, many of our beneficiaries here are not even eligible to vote,” says Kahr.

Kahr has significantly fewer problems with criticizing her ideology. “Yes, I am a communist and I stand by it,” said the future mayor of Austria’s second largest city. Real estate agents do not have to fear that their profession will fall out of favor due to the new Graz city government. In any case, the KPÖ, which established the tenant emergency number in the Styrian capital, is well networked with brokers. In the middle of a conversation with the “Wiener Zeitung”, a desperate man calls on Kahr’s old Nokia keypad. His wife has left him and he is now looking for new accommodation for himself and his children. Kahr nods several times during the conversation.

When she hangs up, Kahr apologizes and types another number into her cell phone. She calls a real estate agent, describes the man’s situation to her and has found a new apartment within a few minutes.

In addition to the “Wiener Zeitung”, a statue of Karl Marx is also a witness to Kahr’s understanding of politics. The large bronze-colored head of the communist thought leader is an old gift that she finds “overrated”, but the ideology it embodies is not. Communism and Marxism stand up for “equality and justice,” says Kahr proudly. In any case, she had not joined the KPÖ “because of an SED, a CPSU, and certainly not because of Stalin, but because of the ideals”.

More apartments for Graz

Concrete changes that grow out of these ideals should now be in Graz. The aim of the new city government is to build several social housing. If this means that green spaces have to give way – after all a central point of criticism of the policy of ex-mayor Nagl – that is “a necessary evil” for Kahr. For the local politician, the expansion of the tram network on the Mur is “a social and climate-political solution”. For Kahr, climate policy has always been a question of humility and social access throughout her life. “The fact that green and the climate go hand in hand was not an issue for me in my childhood and youth,” says the 60-year-old. Now she sits with the Greens and the SPÖ in government. The left-wing coalition has to be prepared for harsh headwinds, both FPÖ and ÖVP promised a fundamental opposition course after the election. As usual, Kahr takes it calmly.

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