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Haider Fighting for Political Life

November 2, 2000

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Nearly a year after his rise to international notoriety, right-wing firebrand Joerg Haider is fighting for his political life after his party suffered a setback in a regional election and following allegations he used allies in the police to spy on his rivals.

Haider’s troubles today stand in sharp contrast to his image only nine months ago, when the telegenic, fast-talking populist _ who once praised Adolf Hitler’s employment practices _ led his one-time fringe party into the governing coalition of a European Union state.

That prompted Israel to withdraw its ambassador and the 14 other EU members to impose diplomatic sanctions. The Israeli envoy is still gone, but the EU backed down in September, lifting the measures unconditionally even though Haider’s Freedom Party remains in government.

However, Haider’s personal fortunes have been suffering. His Freedom Party was trounced in elections Oct. 15 in Austria’s southeastern Styria state, winning only 12.7 percent of the vote.

That was down 4.7 points from the party’s percentage in Styrian elections five years earlier and less than half of the 27 percent Haider’s followers won in national elections in October 1999.

More troublesome for Haider are allegations that his allies in the Austrian national police illegally gave his party confidential information about politicians, artists, journalists and others from classified police intelligence files.

The allegations are reminiscent of those that brought down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal in 1974. Although Austria _ with its ``old-boy-network″ political culture and tradition of scandals disappearing without a trace _ is not America, the charges are serious.

Eleven police officials were suspended Monday pending completion of several investigations underway into the spying allegations. One of them, Horst Binder, is Haider’s bodyguard.

Last week, the Vienna state prosecutor launched an investigation into the allegations, first raised by former policeman and Freedom Party member Josef Kleindienst. In a book, Kleindienst claimed unidentified Freedom Party officials had obtained classified information since 1990.

Kleindienst later hinted that officials from other parties had also received such material. The Austrian media, however, have focused on Haider’s alleged role.

If the Vienna prosecutor concludes there is evidence to support the allegations, he could begin a second, more formal investigation that could lead to criminal charges. As a state governor, Haider has no immunity from prosecution, which members of parliament enjoy.

Haider has dismissed the allegations as a fabrication from ``the sick minds of a few journalists.″ His party claims that two rival Social Democrats _ former Interior Minister Caspar Einem and Oswald Kessler _ used informants themselves to spy on him when their party was in power. Einem and Kessler deny the charge.

Haider admitted Tuesday that he had been questioned by police in connection with the spying allegations. He said police wanted his reaction to documents allegedly found during a search of his bodyguard’s home.

Haider claimed the documents were ``manipulated″ but he refused to elaborate. He also said police had searched the home of his former secretary, Gerald Mikscha, but found nothing.

Although the Styria election loss does not effect Haider’s position as Carinthia state governor, it has tarnished his image. The Freedom Party is widely considered by Austrians as Haider’s personal organization, even though he gave up the chairmanship months ago.

Some commentators believe the party fared poorly because its role in government forced it to soften its anti-immigrant and anti-EU message, which has resonance among many Austrian voters.

That may push Haider back to his old, confrontational stand.

A week after the Styria election, Haider was campaigning in Vienna in advance of March’s municipal ballot. He told a rally that ``we don’t need any artificially induced multicultural society″ and the Austrian capital ``should not be a city of immigrants.″

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