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Austrian Rightist Faces Key Test

Sunday's vote in Joerg Haider's southern stronghold may be his last chance. The divisive politician's party trails in polls, but is surging.

March 02, 2004|Sonya Yee | Times Staff Writer

KLAGENFURT, Austria — Far-right politician Joerg Haider, whose rising popularity in Austria a few years ago rattled much of Europe, is now battling to hang on to power in upcoming elections here in his southern stronghold.

Haider's Freedom Party has suffered a series of defeats in recent years. And although Haider, 54, has repeatedly bounced back during his turbulent political career, Sunday's parliamentary election in the Alpine province of Carinthia is seen by Austrian political observers as his last chance to remain a player in domestic and European politics.

"For Haider, this is the most important election," said Antonia Goessinger, head of the Carinthian politics department at Kleine Zeitung daily newspaper. "The Freedom Party has lost dramatically across the country, and he needs to show that he can be a success on his home ground."

In late January, polls indicated that the Carinthian Freedom Party, led by Haider, who also is governor of the province, was far behind the front-runner. Some surveys showed the party with as little as 29% of the vote, compared with about 40% for the Social Democrats.

Haider's relentless campaigning in the last month has narrowed the gap to a few percentage points. A Gallup Austria poll indicated that about 15% of voters were undecided 10 days before the vote.

Haider gained notoriety across Europe for his xenophobic rhetoric and veiled comments widely viewed as anti-Semitic. He denies that he is anti-Semitic.

In 2000, Haider's party joined a coalition federal government led by the conservative People's Party. He was considered such a threat that fellow European Union members temporarily suspended diplomatic ties with Austria, and Israel withdrew its ambassador.

He stepped down as head of the Austrian Freedom Party after the imposition of the EU sanctions, but remained a potent force. In late 2002, he engineered a revolt within his party that ended the coalition with the People's Party and led to early elections.

Austrians appeared tired of Haider, however; in the November 2002 vote, support for the Freedom Party fell from 27% to just 10%, although the party remained in government as a junior partner. In regional elections in the provinces of Tyrol and Upper Austria last year, the Freedom Party finished last among four parties.

Haider is not expected to hold onto the 42% that his party won in the last Carinthian elections in 1999, but this year's vote offers him a chance to defy national trends and retain influence in national politics.

He also remains personally popular in the province. The Freedom Party's slip in local polls is largely attributed to disgruntlement with the federal government and the party's general decline nationwide. The Gallup survey found that if voters could directly elect a governor, Haider would win by a wide margin.

A deft campaigner, Haider has been traveling almost constantly in recent months, meeting with voters in the smallest villages in the province. On Valentine's Day, Haider invited voters to visit him at the governor's office, where he offered them flowers, coffee and cake.

"Every second Carinthian has shaken hands with Haider," Goessinger said.

Haider served an earlier term as Carinthian governor but was forced out in 1991 after praising Adolf Hitler's employment policies, only to return triumphantly in balloting eight years later.

He has continued to court controversy, recently branding Israel a dictatorship and saying that morally there was little difference between ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and President Bush.

In an interview with Austrian television, Haider said: "I would have a hard time choosing [between them]. Both have been at loggerheads with international law, both have committed human rights abuses, only one has the luck that he leads a superpower ... while the other was a weak dictator."

Haider paid two visits to Hussein in 2002 and later wrote a book about his experiences.

Austrian politicians condemned Haider's comments, but the war in Iraq was unpopular in Austria, and some welcomed the criticism of Bush.

Peter Dumrailer, a 49-year-old franchise developer in the Carinthian capital of Klagenfurt, is no fan of Haider. "But compared with Bush or [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, Haider is harmless," he said.

And in Carinthia, at least, his comments tend to enhance his standing as a maverick.

"It is part of his image -- that he is natural, he is not created by spin doctors," said Peter Filzmaier, a political scientist at the University of Klagenfurt.

Ernst Pertl, who runs a vegetable stand in Klagenfurt and plans to vote for "the father of the people" in Sunday's election, praised Haider's outspokenness. "He says what other people think and don't say," Pertl said.

He acknowledges, however, that Haider's choice of words "isn't always appropriate."

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