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Austria: Have Voters Had Enough Of Haider?

Austrian far-right politician Joerg Haider shocked his country last week (15 February) by saying he would withdraw from national politics. The announcement followed stinging criticism about a recent trip Haider took to Iraq. But by 17 February, the Freedom Party politician was back in the national spotlight, pledging to maintain his role as a key adviser to his party, which governs in coalition with the Austrian Peoples' Party. Voters may have had enough, however. Experts say Haider's appeal is on the wane.

Prague, 19 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- While it's too early to count out Austrian far-right politician Joerg Haider, analysts say a political misstep over the weekend may have diminished his appeal in the eyes of voters.

Haider, a former leader of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) and still the party's most influential member, said on 15 February that he would resign from a powerful governing commission after coming under strong criticism for a recent trip to Iraq. During the trip, Haider met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, shaking hands with Saddam at his presidential palace in Baghdad.

The Freedom Party shares power in coalition with the right-of-center Austrian Peoples' Party (OeVP). While Haider is not formally a member of the government, he exercises considerable influence over national policy because of his standing in the Freedom Party.

The resignation triggered a crisis within the party and prompted rumors that the coalition government was in trouble.

Melanie Sully, a political scientist at Vienna's Diplomatic Academy, says Austrians were gripped over the weekend by Haider's resignation and rumors he would withdraw from national politics.

"[On] Friday, [Haider] made this rather dramatic, tear-stained...appearance on national television, saying he was withdrawing from federal politics and the Coalition Committee. 'Yes,' and 'I'm already gone,' he said. [Already] on Saturday, he did hint that he might rethink that decision if certain conditions were made."

The crisis was resolved on Sunday (17 February) -- after two days of closed-door talks -- when the Freedom Party's nominal leader Susanne Riess-Passer said Haider would be at her disposal to advise on national affairs even if he were no longer a member of the Coalition Committee.

But the theatricality of the resignation and the quick -- if informal -- return to power may have left a bad taste with voters increasingly intolerant of Haider's behavior since they voted the Freedom Party into national government in 1999. Since then, the FPOe has steadily lost support in each of the country's provinces, including in the capital, Vienna.

A national poll published yesterday in the Viennese daily "Der Standard" showed that almost four out of five Austrians (78 percent) say Haider should not have a role in national politics. The overall approval rating for the Freedom Party fell to 23 percent from around 26 percent as recently as late last month.

Nicholas Whyte of the Centre for European Policy Studies says voters are increasingly turned off by what they see as the Freedom Party's amateurishness.

"There's a fundamental disconnect in Austrian politics between political parties and the electorate. That's why [Haider's] party made the gains that they did, because they appeared to be offering something new and something different. Now it's turned out that they are simply offering the old kind of politics, only done in a more amateurish way, and that is going to turn voters off."

To be sure, it's too early to discount Haider. General elections are set for next year, and Haider remains the most charismatic of the FPOe's leading politicians.

Sully says it's not clear how much support for the Freedom Party can be attributed to Haider alone, but the party cannot afford to ignore him.

"Well, he's the big voter in the party or as it's seen. He still does mobilize a crucial percentage for the party. We're not sure how much, but certainly a necessary percentage for any election. And he's certainly, within the party, got a lot of charismatic standing, and they turn to him, as it were, for leadership, for guidance. And his authority cannot be ignored."

Haider first rose to prominence in the mid-1980s on a platform of anti-immigration, nationalism, and even sympathy for some policies of Nazi Germany. His entry into national politics cast a black mark on Austria, which since World War II had been battling a reputation for anti-Semitism and provincialism.

Following the 1999 national elections that brought the Freedom Party into the federal government, the European Union slapped the country with humiliating sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted only after a panel of EU experts affirmed that Austria would continue to honor its EU commitment to safeguard dissent and human rights.

Sully says perceptions of Haider abroad as a hard nationalist and Nazi sympathizer are misplaced. While not defending him, she says he has successfully steered his party away from the far right in favor of supporting the working man and increased social spending.

The party's surprisingly good showing in 1999, she says, was in part because the Freedom Party was able to lure away many of the rank-and-file workers who would normally have supported the Social Democrats. But Haider's appeal as a maverick and outsider has faded as his party has attempted to grapple with day-to-day problems in government.

Sully says a large budget deficit, for example, forced the Freedom Party to renege on promises of increased social welfare and pension reform and thus cost it many former supporters.

"Well, when they came into power, they found a big budget deficit, which they had to -- any government would have had to -- sort out. Which meant quite a lot of cutbacks in social welfare, pension reforms, which hurt the small man on the street, which was the clientele of the Freedom Party."

The party is also hampered by dissatisfaction with high taxes in Austria, now at their highest level since World War II.

Few in Eastern Europe would be sorry to see Haider leave the scene. In the past, he has threatened to slow EU enlargement eastward unless the accession countries agree to severe limits on their citizens moving to existing EU countries.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.