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Austria: Freedom Party Loses Ground In Vienna Vote

Austria's far-right Freedom Party lost ground heavily in Vienna's local elections yesterday, its third consecutive setback at the polls since it joined a national coalition over a year ago. But Joerg Haider's party still managed to win more than 20 percent of the vote in the Austrian capital. Does this make it a spent force or is it one still to be reckoned with?

Prague, 26 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Austria's far right Freedom Party, or FPO, suffered an embarrassing setback in Vienna's municipal elections Sunday. Despite the personal involvement in the campaign of Joerg Haider, the party's leading light, the FPO lost nearly a quarter of its support in the Austrian capital.

In the last city election in 1996, the FPO managed to garner almost 28 percent of the vote, compared to just over 20 percent yesterday.

This is the third successive electoral setback for the FPO since it joined with the conservative People's Party 13 months ago to form a ruling national coalition.

By contrast, big gains yesterday went to the Social Democrats led by Vienna's incumbent mayor, Michael Hauepl. That party gained a majority of seats in the city hall and will be able to rule Vienna alone. The Greens, farther to the left, also posted gains (to 12.45 percent).

Both the Social Democrats and the Greens were quick to describe the results as a personal defeat for Haider, as well as for the FPO's campaign style, which was perceived as playing on themes like immigration and the fear of foreigners.

Several Austrian press commentaries today see the Vienna vote as indicating a possible loss of support for the conservatives in favor of the left in the run-up to the 2003 national elections. But conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel vigorously dismisses that notion, as does the Freedom Party itself.

Brussels-based political analyst Nicholas Whyte of the Center for European Policy Studies is also inclined to see a possible turning point for the FPO in yesterday's results. He tells RFE/RL:

"It seems as if the inexorable rise [of the FPO] that some people feared has stopped, and there is a certain turning of the tide that one can sense." Whyte says that in normal circumstances governing parties would accept a result like yesterday's in Vienna as a routine part of the electoral cycle, and not be overly worried about its longer-term impact. But given the presence of the far-right in this particular equation, he adds, the situation is Austria cannot be seen as quite "normal." Whyte thinks the senior partner in the ruling coalition, Schuessel's People's Party, may be pondering its options with growing unease.

"All in all, I would have thought this must weaken the current coalition, but not fatally. What it probably does is to make much less likely the prospect that the Freedom Party will be in the next Austrian government after the next [national] election."

Another political analyst, John Palmer of the European Policy Center, says that within the European Union there will be pleasure at the rebuff given yesterday by Viennese citizens to Haider's party.

After the FPO joined the present coalition in February 2000, Austria's 14 EU partners imposed a diplomatic freeze on Vienna in protest. Although the freeze ended in September, Palmer credits it with having at least stimulated debate in Austria on democratic processes. He says it appears now that many Austrians do not want their country associated with demagogic far-right politics.

Palmer cites remarks made by Haider during the election campaign about the leader of Vienna's Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, which to many smacked of anti-Semitism:

"I note that Mr. Haider's attempts to attract attention to himself with what are widely seen as implicitly anti-Semitic remarks has rebounded, and I think people will take satisfaction from that."

One major question, of course, is whether Vienna and its voting patterns can be seen as typical of those in the rest of Austria. Analyst Whyte says:

"Like most capital cities, Vienna has a populist, radical tradition. Now for the last two decades, the socialists have been the main beneficiaries of that. But they are not automatically the only beneficiaries, and that is what the Freedom Party was able to capitalize on over the last few years and over the last few sets of elections. That's why we saw their support growing. But at the same time even they cannot take that support for granted."

Whyte concludes that given the drop in voting support for the Freedom Party in each provincial election since it joined the ruling coalition -- and now also in Vienna -- an overall decline in the FPO's standing is indicated.