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Austria: Coalition With Far-Right Party Could Damage Country's Image

An era may be over in Austria, where a coalition of socialists and conservatives is on the verge of losing power after 14 years. Correspondent Roland Eggleston says the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party in a coalition could hurt Austria's image abroad.

Vienna, 26 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A new coalition government being negotiated in Vienna this week is expected to bring to power the leader of the conservative People's Party, Wolfgang Schuessel. The popular politician has long sought the post of chancellor.

But most interest in the negotiations is focusing not on Schuessel but on his potential coalition partner, Joerg Haider, leader of the far-right Freedom Party.

Haider once infamously praised the employment policies of Nazi Germany, and his party traditionally campaigns on an anti-immigrant, anti-European Union platform. Israel has already warned it might withdraw its ambassador from Vienna if Haider enters the government.

The Freedom Party placed a surprise second in parliamentary elections in October, nudging the People's Party into third place. The Socialists won the most votes, but their 65 seats were not enough to form a government in the 183-seat parliament.

Our correspondent says that it is traditional in Austria for the leader of the second party in a coalition to become foreign minister. This would mean that Haider would become chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) until the end of the year. Austria took over the chairmanship on January 1. Some of the 55 members of the OSCE have previously expressed unease over a possible Haider chairmanship.

In Vienna today, officials of Haider's party told RFE/RL that Haider would prefer to remain governor of the southern province of Carinthia (Kaernten), to which he was elected last March. At the time, Haider said he would complete his full term.

Analysts point out Austria could face other strains if Haider became foreign minister.

Although Haider has said he would not use Austria's veto to halt expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe, he has said he believes it should be delayed by 10 years.

This would bring the country into direct conflict with its neighbors to the north, east and south, all of whom are looking for rapid entry into the European Union.

Schuessel today sought to calm some of the alarm expressed over a possible coalition with the Freedom Party by telling reporters that a coalition pact would have to contain a clear statement repudiating the Nazis and committing the country to European integration.

In recent months, Haider himself has retreated from some of the more extreme positions he previously espoused.

In public speeches, he now rejects any comparison between his Freedom Party and the Nazis. In an interview with an RFE/RL correspondent last year, he described himself as a "democratic populist" who seeks to give Austria a more important role in Europe. He says Austria has been damaged by statistics showing that more than 700,000 Austrians were Nazi party members.

Nevertheless, he has warned against the influx of foreign workers into Austria, charging that they take jobs from Austrian citizens. He has suggested an immigration freeze.

This week's negotiations on a conservative-far right-wing coalition follow nearly three months of negotiations on other political combinations which critics in the Austrian capital have labeled the "Viennese Waltz."

Austrian political experts say voters are tired of the long coalition between the Socialists and the People's Party. It has been a bitter joke in Austria that almost all prominent positions -- whether in government, finance, banking and even the military -- are divided among party members. The arrangement was widely known as the "Austrian system."

Despite these doubts, just a week ago it seemed as if the old coalition would continue. The Socialists and the People's Party put together a 400-page document detailing the policies the new coalition would follow, including many new directions demanded by the conservatives. But in an unexpected drama, the agreement fell apart only hours after it was signed. The People's Party suddenly insisted on more ministerial posts for themselves, but the Socialists refused.