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Austria: Strong Nationalist Vote Could Affect EU Expansion

Austrians go to the polls on Sunday in a vote that is expected to increase the political clout of the controversial nationalist politician Joerg Haider. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines the impact that a strong showing for Haider may have on the eastward expansion of the European Union.

Prague, 1 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - Analysts in Brussels say Austria's general election on Sunday will affect not only the political landscape in Vienna, but also the process of European Union expansion.

Opinion polls suggest that the anti-foreigner Freedom Party, led by the Austrian nationalist Joerg Haider, could become the second largest parliamentary group through Sunday's ballot.

Such a result would threaten the 13-year-old grand coalition of Chancellor Viktor Klima's Social Democrats and its junior coalition partner, the People's Party. Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel has said his People's Party will withdraw from the coalition if Haider's party wins more votes, as predicted.

The Freedom Party already has won two state elections this year. Haider was elected governor of Carinthia in April with 42 percent of the vote.

The 49-year-old Haider has largely set the agenda in the current election campaign. He has been able to force the mainstream parties to define themselves in relation to his own controversial positions.

In the past, Haider has praised the "orderly" nature of Adolf Hitler's employment policies and has described Waffen SS veterans as "decent men of character." Haider's current campaign has fed on the xenophobic fears of Austria's urban working class. Freedom Party election posters promise to prevent Austria from being "swamped" by foreigners.

Haider says immigrants are a burden to Austrian taxpayers. He claims Bosnian refugees are being housed in four-star hotels and that Austrian schoolchildren are being forced to learn Serbo-Croatian. He also opposes the eastward expansion of the EU claiming that Austria will be inundated with cheap labor if the Union expands to include former communist countries.

John Palmer, director of the independent Brussels-based European Policy Center, says Haider's views are regarded as "extremist" by many EU leaders. But Palmer says a strong showing for Haider would be a worrying signal from an EU member state at a time when Brussels is aiming for a more active phase in its eastward expansion.

"The danger of the Haider phenomenon, and similar phenomena in other EU countries, is that they can trigger a nationalist response in the (EU) candidate countries -- People who say 'Look! They don't want us. They are against us.' And we get a self-fulfilling prophesy of rival nationalist movements playing upon people's fears."

Most commentators in Austria say the political climate would become more confrontational if Haider is involved in government. Some add that a strong vote for Haider could give a degree of respectability to xenophobic politicians in other EU states.

Others are alarmed that Haider's rhetoric is striking a chord among so many voters in a country that is so prosperous and has such a low unemployment rate. Palmer, who focuses on EU expansion issues, says a role for Haider in any governing coalition is likely to have negative consequences for economic links between Vienna and Austria's neighbors to the east.

"It would be a great pity if this dissident and rather negative note being struck by Haider (on immigration and EU expansion) were to complicate the enormous role which Austria could play as a vital bridge between the European Union and its new member states to the east. Austria is very well situated to take advantage of that, and I don't think it will be able to play the role that it could play in a wider Europe if it were to be held back by the (xenophobic) fears being exploited by people like Haider."

Palmer defined a victory for Haider as any vote that would allow him to become part of a new governing coalition. But the Brussels-based analyst says he has no reason to believe the prognosis of some political writers in Vienna, who are saying that Haider could become the next Austrian chancellor.

Nevertheless, the fractious parties in Klima's grand coalition are accusing each other of secretly preparing deals with Haider in order to remain in power after Sunday's ballot. ss