In conversation with
Elke Kahr
Mayor of Graz, Austria
Participants in the World Mayor Project were invited to question the winner of the 2023 World Mayor Prize on a wide range of issues including politics, society, the environment and business. The mayor was also asked about her political convictions and her personal beliefs. She replies with candour and thoughtfulness and, unusual for a politician, she does not circumvent contentious topics

In conversation

Question by Elke H., Graz
You are a trailblazer in Austrian politics. As a woman and member of the Austrian Communist Party, have you encountered wariness from male, conservative colleagues or others?

Mayor Kahr replies
I have been active in local politics for more than 30 years. I have encountered prejudice and wariness, but I never took it personally. A timespan this long has brought changes in the mentality of people, including conservative colleagues.

Question by Draginja N., Graz
What part of your work, since becoming mayor, do you like best, and what do you not like so much and would perhaps like to change?

Mayor Kahr replies
I still enjoy being in personal contact with the people of my hometown. Since becoming mayor, some new tasks have become part of my work routine, and I try to embrace them as well as I can. Many issues that affect our work are regulated by laws over which the City of Graz has no say, like the, in my opinion, overblown salaries many politicians receive. Those I’d like to change.

Question by Klaus R., Graz
What are the most important aspects for equality, and combatting poverty, in a medium-sized city such as Graz?

Mayor Kahr replies
It’s most important to enable people to live their lives without being in constant fear of losing their flats, their jobs, and their ability to afford what they need daily. Local politics can help by providing affordable housing, low rates for communal services and offering jobs that offer stability. By approaching disadvantaged people and creating offers of assistance for people who encounter unforeseeable hardships, the city can pre-emptively work against poverty.

Question by Ernst D., Graz and Vienna
What can other political leaders do to gain support for issues such as general prosperity, social justice, humanity and peace in a world in which voters are increasingly being won over by marginalisation, nationalism, fear and hatred?

Mayor Kahr replies
It’s my credo that all people who live in Graz, no matter where they come from and what beliefs they hold, must find a place in our society to flourish and thrive. Many initiatives in our city aim at diminishing discrimination and prejudice. The current coalition has pleaded to do everything possible to create an atmosphere of openness and friendliness, which can only be successful if representatives of local politics set a good example themselves.

Question by Hans-Joachim W., Leipzig, Germany
Your city’s office for peace (Friedensbüro) is a great initiative and extremely important at a time when conflicts in parts of the world endanger peaceful co-existence in many European cities. Should not every major European city set up a similar project and has Graz received expressions of interest from other cities?

Mayor Kahr replies
Projects like the Friedensbüro and the district work which is supported by them are very important in conflict resolution, but also in creating offers for people who, otherwise, would be left on their own with many challenges of their daily lives. I think most cities would benefit from such initiatives.

Question by Maximilian T., working in Graz
How important is your daily contact with fellow citizens for your work as mayor?

Mayor Kahr replies
The daily contact with fellow citizens is the most important part of my work. It is also what I like more than everything else about my duties. If one finds a sympathetic ear for people’s concerns, one doesn’t need to commission expensive surveys and studies.

Question by Doris K., Graz
Do you have any ideas on how to integrate children from difficult socio-economic backgrounds into formal school learning to prevent them from growing up outside mainstream society?

Mayor Kahr replies
That’s one of the most important questions for good development in our society. One aspect the city can provide is extra funding for schools attended by children from difficult backgrounds, but also to prevent ghettoisation by providing sensible housing policies.

Question by Lukas K., Vienna
Mayor Kahr, in light of the increasing challenges posed by the climate crisis, what concrete measures are you planning to develop Graz into an even more sustainable and climate-resilient city? How do you see the role of green infrastructure and renewable energies in the future urban design of Graz?

Mayor Kahr replies
Tackling the climate crisis is a challenge every city is facing. Deputy mayor Judith Schwentner has taken a wide range of measures which are too numerous to list here. On the website of Graz, you find a good overview.

I think the fact that Graz, at its debut entry for the title of European Green Capital Award, was among the three finalists despite the demanding criteria, shows that Graz is on the right track.

One of the first steps taken by the new city administration was the creation of an energy scheme which will provide 20 per cent of the city’s long-distance heating scheme by renewable energy within our city which will reduce our dependence on fossil energy sources.

Follow on question
The climate crisis not only affects the environment but also the social fabric of a city. What strategies are you pursuing to ensure and improve the social well-being of the population of Graz in times of climate change, especially concerning vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children and socially disadvantaged people?

Mayor Kahr replies
Many aspects of climate protection have positive effects for everyone. By protecting green areas, parks and woods from further sealing of the soil surface, we create value for everyone. Other aspects like the transition in heating systems demand our support for those who don’t have enough money to meet new (legal) requirements. That’s where we need to make sure that electricity and heating are affordable for everyone as we support the creation of renewable ways to provide energy.

Question by Martin T., Graz
Over the coming two years, thousands of new apartments will be constructed in the boroughs of Liebenau and Jakomini. How will the increased traffic and resulting air pollution be managed? Where will the children go to kindergarten and school?

Mayor Kahr replies
Deputy Mayor Judith Schwentner puts a lot of effort into keeping the further development of our public transport systems in step with urban development. To prevent things going off course as we have seen in past developments, new licences are always, within the limitations we’re confronted with, aligned with the development of the necessary infrastructure like schools tramway/bus stops or even new routes. One major problem all cities are confronted with is the problem of labour shortage in certain areas.

Question by Andrea Z., Graz
What do you think makes a good politician and how do you manage not to fall prey to the vanity and aloofness that other politicians often fall victim to quite quickly?

Mayor Kahr replies
I think that’s a question of the disposition of one’s character. In my party, we have pledged to keep an average skilled labour income and give the rest to people in need if we are elected to public office. That guarantees that people who are looking for their benefit have no interest in running for our party.

Question by Joachim J., Austria
Is liberal democracy compatible with your style of communism?

Mayor Kahr replies
If you are talking about human and civil rights, an open society, free elections and the rule of law, then yes. If you consider a neo-liberal approach to economics as an integral part of this style of democracy, I disassociate myself from this aspect. I’m convinced that it is important to have public control or ownership of healthcare, education and other services people need daily.

Question by Ulrike P. Graz
In the last election, it was not the Communist Party that was elected, but you as a person. For understandable reasons, many voters are critical of your party. Should you as Elke Kahr win an absolute majority in the next election, would your politics be less consensual?

Mayor Kahr replies
Certainly not, I have always attempted to involve as many people as possible in the process of decision-making. And the other mandataries of my party who were elected in 2021 have the same approach as I do.

Question by Elisabeth L., Vienna
How does communism in Austria differ from Andreas Babler's * social democracy? Would a social democratic mayor govern differently than a communist mayor? * Andreas Babler is the leader of Austria’s Social Democratic Party (SPÖ).

Mayor Kahr replies
I honestly cannot answer that question, I don’t know Andreas Babler personally. Austrian communists have always defended public ownership of important infrastructure and industries, while social democracy jumped on the neo-liberal train. But I think they try to distance themselves from that period now, which is a good thing. I believe that a strong social democracy can overall bring positive changes in Austria, but at the same time, they need a principled corrective.

Question by Richard D., Graz
You are the leader of the Communist Party in Graz. Do your policy guidelines match the ideology of communism and are there some contradictions? Please give at least one example of the matchings and the contradictions.

Mayor Kahr replies
There’s no such thing as “the” ideology of communism. We are not trying to copy failed systems of the past, but we try to create a style of politics which orientates itself along the lines of what we think communism in the 21st century should be – a democratic system where basic needs such as education, healthcare, housing and transportation are regulated not by private profit but by public needs.

Question by Friedrich W., Zurich, Switzerland
Does your membership of the Austrian Communist Party make it more difficult to cooperate with mayors from other Austrian and European cities? I could imagine that politically conservative mayors may feel uneasy.

Mayor Kahr replies
I heard worries like that a couple of times after being elected in 2021, but the fears have turned out to be unfounded. Graz co-operates internationally and welcomes visitors from all parts of the world. Nobody has articulated such reservations. Quite the opposite is the case, it created a lot of attention and curiosity and media attention from Japan to Greenland.

Question Hans A., Graz
Should non-EU citizens be allowed to vote in municipal council elections in Graz? If so, under what conditions?

Mayor Kahr replies
I have always advocated the right of everyone to vote in local elections. If people have been living here for some time and have become part of the city’s social and economic life, why should they be excluded from the democratic process only because they were born in the wrong category of country?

Question by Martin, Berlin, Germany
As a local councillor, I would like to know what councillors in other municipalities can learn from Graz.

Mayor Kahr replies
Local councillors can always learn from each other, no matter how different their cities and backgrounds are. I think one area Graz excels is the broad range of educational and cultural institutions and sports facilities. At the same time, we provide affordable services and housing for people with lower incomes. To give just one example, people who can’t afford the regular annual ticket for public transport can acquire an annual ticket for the city’s network for 50 Euros.

Question by Barbara Z., Graz and Herbert F., Vienna
Business, hospitality and retail activities are declining in the centres of many European cities. What are your plans to prevent this from happening in Graz?

Mayor Kahr replies
I’m very proud that our city centre is a place which is home to thousands of citizens. We even have council flats in this area. At the same time, we have more and more people frequenting the inner city from year to year, as footfall counts demonstrate. By helping inner city businesses with their advertising efforts, providing affordable premises, and creating better accessibility by modernising our public transport and supporting pedestrians and cyclists, we keep the city centre attractive.

Question by Joachim J., Austria
What motivates you and how do you manage to forego a substantial part of your income and donate it to charitable causes or individuals in need?

Mayor Kahr replies
I never needed motivation, and neither did other mandataries of my party. It’s most important to act according to your convictions.

Question by Wini H., Trofaiach, Austria
We have learnt that anyone can make an appointment with you - even outside office hours - to discuss personal financial problems and to ask you for advice and help. What kind of personal concerns do people bring to you?

Mayor Kahr replies
The range of matters people want to discuss with me is so broad it would be easier to count what people do not want to bring up in their appointments. But even then I can’t think of a topic which hasn’t been brought up at some point. Overall, financial problems with the electricity bill, rent or school activities are most common, but it goes far beyond financial matters.

Question by Jean-Pierre B., Besançon, France
There are still very few women mayors in Europe. What advice would you give women wishing to make a career in politics?

Mayor Kahr replies
In my political party, I have never encountered difficulties because of my sex or gender, so I can’t give “expert advice” to women who do, other than to show courage, perseverance and endurance. That’s always important if you want to gain acceptance for your concerns.

Question by Mechild L., Salzburg
In years to come, how would you like to be remembered as mayor and local politician?

Mayor Kahr replies
I’d like to be remembered for making Graz a friendlier and welcoming place where everyone can thrive and live together peacefully.

Elke Kahr's pages: Elke Kahr wins World Mayor Prize | Essay by Elke Kahr | Commendations for Elke Kahr | In conversation with Elke Kahr |

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The World Mayor Project was conceived in 2004 by the City Mayors Foundation to raise the profile of mayors worldwide and honour those who have contributed exceptionally to local and urban affairs. Mayors must carry out their duties selflessly and beyond reproach. The Project has no association with any city or organisation and is run on philanthropic lines. Any kind of revenue is NOT sought and will be rejected if offered. DETAILS

Winners of the World Mayor Prize since 2004: Edi Rama, Tirana (2004); Dora Bakoyannis, Athens (2005); John So, Melbourne (2006); Helen Zille, Cape Town (2008); Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico City (2010); Iñaki Azkuna, Bilbao (2012); Naheed Nenshi, Calgary (2014); Bart Somers, Mechelen (2016); Valeria Mancinelli, Ancona (2018); Ahmed Aboutaleb, Rotterdam (2021); Philippe Rio, Grigny (2021); Elke Kahr, Graz (2023) DETAILS