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Austria: Gains by Far Right May Change Political Landscape

The leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, Joerg Haider, calls the results of Sunday's national election "sensational." Haider's populist themes appear to have thrust his party into second place in the vote. But his anti-immigrant, anti-European Union statements are raising concerns inside and outside the country. RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs takes a closer look.

Prague, 5 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Austrians are facing a new political landscape following Sunday's national election. Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party now stands on nearly equal footing with the two major parties that have ruled Austria since the end of World War II.

Preliminary results show that Chancellor Viktor Klima's Social Democrats pulled in 33.4 percent of the vote. Their long-time conservative coalition partner, the People's Party, received 26.9 percent. But it appears that second place now belongs to Haider's Freedom Party, creeping past the People's Party with 27.2 percent of the vote.

The leader of the People's Party, Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel has said he'd resign and go into the opposition if his party came in third. But he refuses to concede that this has happened yet. He points out that there are 200,000 ballots sent in by mail that have not yet been counted, and his party trails the Freedom Party by only 14,000 votes. Those ballots are to be counted by Thursday.

Political scientist Helmut Kramer, of the University of Vienna, says the ruling parties deserve a portion of blame for the gains made by the far-right party.

"This coalition has big difficulties projecting a positive, systematic political image, and there is so much infighting between the Social Democrats and the so-called Conservative Party. Therefore, a major part of the Austrian public is able to be seduced by the very, very simplistic and populist campaign propaganda of Haider."

Haider has generated controversy in the past with his anti-immigrant statements. In the early 90s, he was forced to resign as the provincial governor of Carinthia after he praised the labor policies of the Nazis. He also once described Waffen SS veterans as "men of decent character." Still, he was re-elected as governor of Carinthia in April.

And he has made gains since the last election in 1995, when his party garnered 22 percent of the vote. His strategy has been to attack the patronage programs of the ruling parties and to oppose EU enlargement, while supporting business deregulation and more state aid for families. His campaign included slogans such as "Austria first" and "Stop overpopulation by foreigners."

The slogans apparently struck a chord with some voters. Austria stands at the edge of Eastern Europe, bordered by eight nations. And 10 percent of Austrian residents are legal immigrants.

Haider's message appeals to different kinds of voters. Professor Kramer says the Freedom Party leader has been able to exploit both Austrians' anger at government inefficiency and also their fears that EU enlargement will flood the country with East European immigrants.

"Haider is successful because he not only plays the xenophobic and regressive fiddle, but he is able to be presented as a kind of Robin Hood for democrats and for the small people and so on. And he's really able to mollify and to harmonize all of his contradictions."

It's still not clear what Austria's next government will look like and what role, if any, Haider will play in its formation. Forming a coalition could take several months.

Chancellor Klima has ruled out any cooperation with the Freedom Party. And Professor Kramer believes it is highly unlikely that Haider will have any leadership role in government.

"Haider is not really able to be a successful and respected leader at the national level. He is quite skillful as a provincial politician. But, his small, problematic, opportunistic political base prevents him from being accepted by the other players."

The other big players in Austrian politics may have trouble accepting Haider. But his power at the polls certainly has their attention.