VIENNA (Nov. 24)
The Freedom Party, a coalition of rightwingers and liberals, emerged the clear winner in Sunday’s Parliamentary elections, under the leadership of a charismatic young nationalist, Joerg Haider.
Haider, who took over the reins of the party from Norbert Steger only three months ago, raised concern in Jewish and liberal circles for the unabashed chauvinism of his campaign. While he carefully avoided overt neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic statements, he drew the loudest cheers when he said he opposed the “downgrading” of the wartime generation. Observers believe it was not by chance that he chose Braunau, the birthplace of Adolph Hitler, for one of his final campaign rallies before election day.
Haider was in fact endorsed by the radical rightwing National Democratic Party (NPD) which is considered by many to be anti-Semitic. It urged its constituents to vote for the Freedom Party. Haider did not unequivocally reject the overture.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, the Freedom Party stood to gain at least seven seats, giving it a bloc of 19 in the 183-member Nationalrat (Parliament). Its winnings were at the expense of the Socialist Party, headed by Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, which is expected to have 80 seats in the new legislature, down from 90; and the conservative People’s Party of President Kurt Waldheim which is headed by Alois Mock, down to 76 seats from 81.
The ecology-oriented Green Party won eight seats. It will be the first fourth party in Parliament since the Communist Party was ousted by the voters in 1959.
STATUS OF TWO PARTIES
The Freedom Party had been part of the Socialists’ ruling coalition. Three months ago its standing in opinion polls was at an all-time low of three percent. On Sunday it won 10 percent of the vote.
It was Haider’s ascension to power that caused Vranitzky to break the coalition and call for early elections. Normally, the elections would have been held next spring. Vranitzky maintained that by elevating Haider to leadership, the Freedom Party shifted too far to the right to continue as a partner of the Socialists.
The People’s Party would have surpassed the Socialists had it not been for the votes siphoned off by Haider. It saw the danger early on and waged a campaign in which resentment against Israel and against Jewish organizations that exposed Waldheim’s Nazi past during last summer’s Presidential campaign were a strong element.
ISRAEL’S ACTION RANKLES AUSTRIANS
Austrians are rankled by Israel’s refusal to appoint a new Ambassador to Vienna to replace Michael Elizur who retired several months ago. The Israel Embassy is now headed by a Charge d’Affaires. A new Ambassador would have had to present his credentials to Waldheim.
The People’s Party made much of this. It also seized upon an article in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot which criticized Mock for statements he had made during Waldheim’s bid for the Presidency.
This was cited to the electorate as Israeli meddling in Austria’s affairs. Party aides pressured public television stations to air the complaint while criticism of the People’s Party in the West German media was ignored.
The tone of the People’s Party campaign only increased its tension with the Austrian Jewish community. Spokesmen for the latter noted there has always been anti-Semitism in Austria, the novelty being that it is now used for political purposes.
NO MATCH FOR HAIDER
But the People’s Party failed to gain the victory it had hoped for largely because Mock is a colorless figure. He was no match for Haider, who comes from Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost province, and presented himself as champion of the common man. His appeal was to disgruntled Socialists as well as conservatives and to the unemployed in depressed industrial towns.
The most likely result of the election will be a coalition between the Socialists and the People’s Party, led by Vranitzky. Waldheim is expected to ask the Chancellor to form a new government. On Sunday, Socialist Party chairman and former Chancellor Fred Sinowatz ruled out any coalition with the Freedom Party. The People’s Party did not.