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Europe: No to Extremism

November 27, 2002

The poor showing of the extremist Austrian Freedom Party, which won only 10% of the vote in national elections Sunday, is a big setback for the European far right. The party's chameleon-like leader, Joerg Haider, has been a symbol to anti-immigrant parties across Europe, but his party's collapse suggests that though ugly vestiges of Europe's past will always remain, the basic stability of Western European democracy is proving itself.

When Haider's party scored a shocking 27% in elections in 1999, expressions of international fear and outrage included European Union sanctions and Israel's withdrawal of its ambassador from Vienna. Although the reaction may have been overstated -- Austria was never in danger of failing as a democracy -- the concern was understandable.

Haider has always sought to distance himself from the aura of brownshirts and toothbrush mustaches. Instead, the Austrian, with his ski-instructor good looks, has tried to represent a kind of modern yuppie fascism, portraying himself as a freedom fighter against an oppressive EU bureaucracy and against those who would condemn the nation's Nazi past. He has called for slashing taxes and played the innocent provocateur in praising Nazi-era employment policies and referring to concentration camps as mere "punishment camps."

Haider's behavior, which includes meeting several times with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, seems to have turned off voters. Austria, like other countries on the continent, faces a sputtering economy. But voters did not buy the scapegoating of immigrants for economic problems this time; instead they backed the program of the mainstream conservative People's Party, which won 42% of the vote and is pushing further integration into the European Union and privatization of state-owned enterprises. The Social Democrats endorsed some tax cuts and won 37%.

No doubt Haider and his remaining followers will continue to flicker on Austria's political landscape. But coupled with Swiss voters' rejection, also Sunday, of a nationalist initiative that would have essentially closed off the country to all asylum seekers, it was not a good weekend for reactionaries in Europe. Both developments indicate that there is a great deal of room for hope that the appeal of xenophobia and extremism in Europe is not gaining.

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