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Far-Right Party in Austria at a Crossroads

September 12, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VIENNA — A squabble within the party of right-wing populist Joerg Haider has thrown Austrian politics into chaos, opening the possibility that a country widely criticized for bringing the far right into government two years ago will remove it in elections late this year.

Ministers from Haider's Freedom Party, junior partner in the governing coalition, resigned recently because of the dispute, prompting Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel of the People's Party to call new elections.

Analysts say far more voters than usual are undecided, giving moderate parties a chance to pick up substantial support.

"Normally people know who they are going to vote for; this time there are a lot of people who don't know what they are going to do," said David Pfarrhofer, a director of Market, a respected public opinion research firm based in Linz. "Usually, maybe 20% don't know who they are going to vote for; this time it's 40%. So all the parties have a chance to gain."

The key to the equation is Haider, the charismatic, erratic populist who has had to apologize for flattering comments about the Nazi regime, fanned anti-foreigner sentiments and visited Saddam Hussein this year in Iraq. Haider has played on the fears of Austria's most isolationist factions, including those who oppose European Union expansion.

But he and his party have recently suffered a substantial slide in public support. Nonetheless, officials of the party agreed on Wednesday to once again make Haider its leader, a post he left in 2000 when the party joined the government. They also chose Herbert Haupt, the current social services minister, to lead the party in the elections.

How Haider's party fares in this election could have a lasting effect on his role in far-right politics here and on his party, many analysts said.

The Freedom Party runs the risk of "an electoral Waterloo," said Fritz Plasser, a political science professor at the University of Innsbruck. The outcome will depend on several factors, not least of which is the role Haider plays in the campaign.

Supporters and opponents alike view him as a masterful campaigner, more capable than any other Austrian politician of exciting the electorate.

"We've written Haider off so many times, and we're always deceived," said Christian Rainer, editor and publisher of the weekly political magazine Profil. "He always comes back."

In addition to the Freedom Party and Schuessel's center-right People's Party, Austria's main parties are the left-leaning Social Democrats and the Greens.

Haider's party won 27% of the vote in 1999 elections and joined the government in early 2000. Austria's partners in the European Union, disturbed by Haider's influence in government, slapped diplomatic sanctions on the country for seven months, lifting them in September 2000.

Among the questions in the coming election is how comfortable Austrians are with the evolving image of their country. A second issue is whether they perceive the right-leaning government as tending to their concerns, which include unemployment, an economic slowdown and a wariness of EU expansion to East European countries, including four on Austria's borders.

Political analysts said Haider precipitated infighting in his party to move it back into the opposition role, where it has proven more popular.

"Haider's appeal was exactly because he was not governing the country," said Anton Pelinka, a professor at the University of Innsbruck. Once the Freedom Party became part of the government its popularity declined, and after the intraparty squabble it polled recently at about 17%.

"Haider's attempt to break the governing coalition was to make sure that his party would not say 'yes' to EU enlargement," said Pelinka, who believes that Haider aspires to a wider role in the far-right movement in Europe, possibly through the European Parliament.

That issue plays well with his core constituents, who worry that EU enlargement will encourage Eastern Europeans to come to Austria and take jobs from them and lead more Austrians to cross borders to shop because prices are cheaper.

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Sonya Yee in The Times' Vienna Bureau contributed to this report.

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