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Far Right-Wing Election Triumph Raises Question: Why Austria?

October 15, 1996

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Europe’s strongest right-wing movement just got stronger.

Fresh from a triumph at the polls on Sunday, the leader of a far-right Austrian party is setting his sights on Austria’s top political prize: the chancellorship.

``It’s logical that a party which develops like ours has to think about carrying the responsibility of government,″ Joseph Haider, a dapper and quick-witted populist, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Haider’s Freedom Party got more than 27 percent of the vote Sunday in elections for the European Parliament, drawing even with the traditional Socialist and centrist parties in power since the end of World War II. The party also made strong gains in Vienna, ruled by the Social Democrats for 50 years.

And while the next scheduled general elections are three years away, Haider sees no point in procrastinating.

``We have a clear mandate. We will try to fulfill the expectations of the voters,″ Haider said.

Much of the world has focused on Haider’s notorious side _ his anti-foreigner statements and his provocative comments about the Nazi era. Last year, he lauded the decency of veterans of Adolf Hitler’s Waffen SS, units notorious for their wartime cruelty.

But his good looks, powerful speaking style and quick wit helped him gain popularity at home.

Haider successfully wooed the workers, the traditional backbone of the Social Democrats, playing on their fears that the good times are over _ that the social security and pension network they’ve always depended on is threatened and that unemployment will jump as cost-cutting foreign companies buy out Austrian firms.

Austrians are better off than most of their continental neighbors, with unemployment among the lowest in Europe, at 4.1 percent. Wages are high and benefits are generous.

But Austrians are scared _ not so much of foreigners as of plans to cut generous social benefits burdening the budget. And they’re looking to Haider to end the decades of privileges extended to politicians and civil servants.

Some argue that the pro-Haider ballot reflected more a protest vote than support for a right-winger.

But Haider said the vote means his party is solid enough to be a deciding factor in Austrian politics.

``We have every reason to be happy about the results,″ he said.

Nowhere in Europe has a right-wing group _ or any other party outside the political mainstream _ achieved mainstream status as the Freedom Party has now done in Austria.

Still, 40 percent of French voters last year chose presidential candidates who either opposed a united Europe or came from the right or left fringe. Jean Marie le Pen, who heads the far-right National Front, did particularly well where unemployment is well above the national average of 12.5 percent.

And Germany’s former communists are enjoying growing popularity by warning about the dangers of soulless pan-European big business.

Most Austrians did not directly vote against European Union membership. Sixty-three percent of the votes went to pro-EU candidates Sunday.

But those who did vote for Haider’s party were either anti-EU or critical enough to want hard-nosed critics of the European Union to represent them in Brussels. And all were against the government coalition of the Social Democrats and the centrist People’s Party.

``A change of power in this country is a real possibility _ and a necessity,″ wrote Hans Rauscher, one of Austria’s most respected commentators, in the left-leaning Kurier.

The only question, Rauscher noted, is whether Haider, ``the radical right populist, leads the country into misfortune″ or whether a ``coalition of reason″ can revitalize the country and reform its moribund business and social structures.

``Change of power yes. But the right one please. A takeover by Haider is neither impossible nor unavoidable,″ he wrote. ``But it has now become more probable.″

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