VIENNA — The most acrimonious campaign in the history of Austrian presidential voting ended Saturday with former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim expected to be elected to the office in runoff balloting today.
The controversy centered around charges that Waldheim had concealed details of his military past in the army of Nazi Germany during World War II--many critics called him a "war criminal." Other observers said that at the very least, the 67-year-old Waldheim had lied about his career during the period from 1942-1945.
Speaking on his last campaign day at Vienna's famous amusement park, the Prater, Waldheim acknowledged the bitterness of the election race, declaring, "It's been a dirty campaign." But he added that he believes that the people would "show the confidence in me tomorrow that they did in May."
Narrowly Missed Majority
In the May 4 presidential election, Waldheim narrowly missed gaining an absolute majority over three opponents; he pulled 49.6% of the vote. This vote forced today's runoff between Waldheim, who represents the conservative People's Party, and his chief opponent in May, Kurt Steyrer, 66, of the Socialist Party.
For his part Saturday, Steyrer called on the voters to continue "stability, renewal, and tolerance" by electing him to replace the outgoing Socialist president, Rudolf Kirchschlager.
Most public opinion polls show Waldheim leading Steyrer by a margin of six to eight percentage points.
In the view of political observers here, Waldheim's candidacy may have been strengthened by the Nazi charges that surfaced against him before the May election.
Many of the accusations were originally raised by the World Jewish Congress in New York and were taken up by Israel and by other prominent Nazi critics around the world. The U.S. government is currently studying whether to bar Waldheim from entering that country because of his World War II activities. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department said it would not make a decision on the issue until after today's election.
Austrian-born Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal has said that the activities by foreigners against Waldheim may have increased his chances of winning the presidency and that they also have stirred up latent anti-Semitism among the Austrian people.
German-born Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld has led recent demonstrations against Waldheim in Austria, most recently on Thursday when some of her supporters were beaten by Waldheim partisans.
Waldheim seemed to take note of what his supporters call outside interference in the election when he said in an Austrian radio broadcast Saturday afternoon:
"Austrians will show their political maturity not to allow foreigners to meddle in their affairs."
Facing the Past
The election is also being viewed by many observers as a test of how Austria will face up to its history. During the late 1930s and the early 1940s, the country had many Nazis in its hierarchy and showed as much anti-Semitism as did Germany.
However, some commentators believe that Austria has buried its memories and guilt over its Nazi phase during World War II and is in no mood to dredge up the past.
A recent Gallup poll showed that Austria's image abroad has suffered sharply since the Waldheim case came to light--with respondents changing their view about this landlocked country as a pleasant place to one where "deceit" is an adjective applied to describe Austrians.
Originally, Waldheim's campaign posters declared of him: "A Man the World Trusts."
Then his past was dredged up. It showed that rather than having retired as a wounded first lieutenant in 1942 after duty on the Russian front and going to law school in Vienna, as he had earlier claimed, Waldheim had actually continued to serve in the Wehrmacht in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945.
Further, he served at the headquarters of Army Group E, whose commander, Gen. Alexander Loehr, was executed after hostilities ended for war crimes, principally for ordering Yugoslav partisan hostages killed in retaliation for attacks against the German army.
Documents indicated that Waldheim, as an intelligence officer, should have had knowledge of such partisan activities and reprisals as well as knowledge of the fact that thousands of Greek Jews were shipped to their deaths in concentration camps during the war. Waldheim, at one point, was based near Salonika, Greece, with the army headquarters group.
Waldheim was also charged with having become a member of Nazi student organizations during his university days in Vienna.
Admits Balkans Service
In recent weeks, Waldheim was forced to admit to his service in the Balkans with the German army, but he continued to deny that he had any knowledge of atrocities committed in Yugoslavia or the deportation of Jews from Greece.
Waldheim's posters have been changed to declare: "The Greatest Austrian," and under a red-and-white Austrian flag, the exhortation: "Now All United for Waldheim."