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Far-Right Freedom Party Fizzles in Austrian Election

Experts say dismal showing signals political end of Joerg Haider. Conservatives win 42%, forcing another coalition government.

November 25, 2002|Sonya Yee | Special to the Times

VIENNA — Once the symbol of the growing power of Europe's far right, Austrian politician Joerg Haider could find himself left out in the political cold after his party's dismal showing in Sunday's parliamentary election.

Haider's Freedom Party garnered 10% of the vote, a sharp drop from the 27% the party won in the 1999 nationwide elections. The conservative People's Party, led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, came out on top with 42%, followed by the Social Democrats with just under 37%. The Greens party came in last with 9%.

The Freedom Party played on Austrian fears of immigration and the economic impact of European Union expansion, a strategy that proved less successful this time than when its second-place finish in 1999 propelled it into government. A power struggle within Freedom Party ranks led to the coalition's collapse in September, precipitating Sunday's elections.

Thanks to defections from the Freedom Party, the People's Party won nearly 16 percentage points more than in 1999. However, the party failed to secure a majority, forcing negotiations with Freedom or the Social Democrats on forming a government.

According to recent polls, a majority of Austrians prefer a renewal of a "grand coalition" between the People's Party and the Social Democrats, which in one form or another has governed Austria for most of the postwar period.

But relations between the two parties have been increasingly antagonistic, and Social Democratic backbenchers are opposed to joining the government as a junior partner. Schuessel is leaving his options open, saying only that "nothing has been decided."

The People's Party may find it easier to work with the Freedom Party, despite the breakdown of its partnership, because its clear electoral advantage would enable it to dictate far better terms this time. One of those terms could be putting Haider on the sidelines.

"It is not Haider's end, but it is the beginning of his political end," said Anton Pelinka, a political scientist at the University of Innsbruck. "For the first time, significant segments, and not only single persons, in his own party have opposed him openly, and the general attitude [toward him] is almost ridiculing."

The charismatic Haider, who has praised Adolf Hitler's economic policy and referred to Nazi concentration camps as "punishment camps," engineered the Freedom Party's rise from a marginal opposition party to a major political player. After the strong electoral showing, the Freedom Party joined the government in early 2000, prompting Austria's fellow European Union member countries to temporarily suspend diplomatic ties in protest.

Haider, who is also governor of Austria's Carinthia province, then stepped down as head of the party, ostensibly to ease tensions. Nevertheless, supporters and opponents alike still considered him the de facto leader of the party.

An internal power struggle between hard-line Haider loyalists and the party's mainstream conservatives ensued, triggering the resignations of top Freedom Party ministers, including party head and Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, in September. That in turn led Schuessel to dissolve the coalition and call elections a year earlier than expected.

The Freedom Party, struggling under new leadership, had little time to mobilize voters, and Haider did not enter the campaign fray until two weeks before the election.

Despite his reputation as a consummate campaigner, Haider's belated involvement did little to enhance the party's standing with voters.

"How can you motivate voters when you destroyed your own party?" said Peter Hajek, a political analyst at the public opinion research firm OGM in Vienna.

Haider's increasingly erratic behavior didn't help. He visited Iraq three times this year, twice to meet with President Saddam Hussein, most recently in early November. He repeatedly threatened to retire from federal politics, only to return, a gambit that appears to have irritated voters.

Haider's abrupt fall from grace hardly seemed possible two years ago, when the Freedom Party appeared to be at the vanguard of Europe's rightward march. Media commentators across Europe spoke of a "Haiderization" of continental politics as far-right parties scored startling electoral gains in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Italy.

With Austrian voters disenchanted with Haider, some analysts predict that the Freedom Party firebrand will eschew domestic politics and seek to lead a pan-European far-right grouping, possibly in the EU's Parliament. However, the Freedom Party's implosion and subsequent election defeat have greatly reduced Haider's standing.

"He still can have a destabilizing impact on Austrian and European politics, but it will be much less important than in the past," said Pelinka.

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