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Austria: Confusion Reigns Over Next Government

Austria has been thrown into political confusion by the decision of the People's Party to end the conservative-socialist coalition which has ruled the country for 13 years. Many commentators believe the decision could open the way for the right-wing Freedom Party to enter government -- a move which could have consequences for Austria's image in the outside world.

Vienna, 13 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of the Austrian People's Party, Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel, declared before the October 3 elections that he would end the 13-year-old coalition government if his party finished in third place. It has held second place for almost 20 years.

When the final results were announced yesterday, the People's Party was indeed in third place -- just 415 votes behind the right-wing Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider. Haider has taken positions at odds with the other two major parties, speaking out against EU expansion and saying he would freeze immigration.

Last night Schuessel honored his pledge and said his party would not enter talks on renewing the coalition with the Socialist Party led by Viktor Klima.

Austria is now convulsed by an uncertainty to which it is not accustomed and which it does not welcome. No party has enough seats to govern alone so a coalition must emerge. But what sort of coalition?

If Schuessel sticks to his refusal to continue the present coalition there appears to be only one likely outcome -- either the Socialists or the People's Party must enter into a coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party. The Socialists have already said they will not do so. Schuessel and his party have not committed themselves.

Most commentators believe the negotiations will be so difficult that it could take until February or March to form a new government. And perhaps no government will emerge, which would mean new elections early next year.

For Austria, it is more than just an internal problem; it is internationally embarrassing. At one level, Austria takes over the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on January 1. Some commentators are already questioning how effective it will be if it has only a caretaker government. Others question how effective Austria would be in representing the OSCE if the right-wing Freedom Party is part of the government.

The other, more important, issue is the fact that Austrian voters have shown such strong support for the Freedom Party and Haider. This has shocked many Austrian commentators despite the reality that Haider's party has grown steadily in support over the years. There was already concern at the last elections in 1995 about its possible "kingmaker" role in forming a government.

Haider has praised Adolf Hitler's employment policies and attends annual reunions of the Waffen SS. Many believe his entry into government could severely damage Austria's international image and its relations with international organizations, particularly the European Union.

Israel views him with such suspicion that it has warned several times it will break relations with Austria if Haider joins the government. The latest was delivered at a European Union meeting in Luxembourg yesterday.

Former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzy caused a shock last week by saying in a television interview that some of Haider's comments showed that "in his head he has never really distanced himself from Hitler's Germany".

The 49-year-old Haider is a millionaire, thanks to property he owns in the province of Karnten. But he has been largely successful in presenting himself as the champion of blue collar workers and the poor.

Haider and the Freedom Party have touched a chord in Austria by blaming the thousands of foreign workers for many of the nation's economic and social problems. He demands that Austria close its borders to new immigrants no matter what their circumstances.

He has also won supporters with his criticisms of the European Union. Many of the Austrians who voted enthusiastically to join the EU have become disillusioned. He touches other chords in Austria with his support for German-speaking minorities in neighboring countries. Last Saturday he said Austria should block Slovenia's entry into the European Union unless it revokes laws which, in Haider's view, discriminate against the German-speaking minority in Slovenia.

Some commentators believe there is another reason for the growing support for Haider and his party. It is that the average Austrian has grown weary of the power-sharing arrangements between the Socialists and the conservative People's Party. Opinion polls indicate that many voters believe these two parties are no longer capable of finding solutions to Austria's economic and social problems. Many have been outspoken in saying they are tired of the way the two parties distribute favors, privileges and good jobs to friends among the party faithful.

Federal President Thomas Klestil is responsible for choosing the leader to form the next government. He said this morning before a meeting with Chancellor Klima that it was "difficult to interpret" what kind of government ordinary Austrian voters were seeking.

Klestil said his main criterion was to find a government which could remain in place for the next four year legislative period. One commentator wished him well but said he was happy not to be in the President's position.