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Behind the Headlines: Anti-semitic, Anti-foreigner Party Expected to Gain in Austrian Vote

A far-right political party with a xenophobic platform is poised to make big gains in next week’s general elections in Austria — and could become the country’s second biggest political force.

Once a pariah in national politics, the Freedom Party, led by 49-year-old populist firebrand Jorg Haider, received 27.5 percent of the vote in regional elections in Vorarlberg on Sept. 19.

This total represented a leap of more than 9 percent over regional election results there five years ago and appeared to confirm public opinion polls that indicate the party has become the country’s second largest.

“It’s like a turbocharger in the home stretch to parliamentary elections,” said Peter Westenthaler, Freedom Party general secretary.

The party won 22 percent of the vote in Austria’s last general elections in 1995.

Nationwide polls earlier this month indicated that the party would win 28 to 29 percent in the elections on Oct. 3.

That would put it well behind Chancellor Viktor Klima’s Social Democratic Party, which is projected to win 35 to 38 percent of the vote — but well ahead of the conservative Peoples Party, with 23 to 24 percent.

These two parties, which have dominated Austrian politics for half a century, ruled in a coalition in the outgoing government.

The results could take Haider, the son of fervent Nazi supporters who repeatedly praised Hitler’s regime in the past, closer to his goal of becoming chancellor of Austria.

Haider has made it clear that if his party receives the second largest number of votes, he will push for its inclusion in a government coalition.

“If the FPOE indeed succeeds in catapulting itself to second place, then Austrian postwar politics will have reached a turning point,” said Marta Halpert, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Vienna-based Central European office.

Observant members of Austria’s 7,000 to 10,000 strong Jewish community may not be able to vote in the Oct. 3 election because it is scheduled on Simchat Torah.

The Interior Ministry suggested that observant Jews could vote by absentee ballot two days before the election at the Austrian Embassy in nearby Slovakia.

The Jewish community issued an indignant statement calling this solution “unacceptable.”

The party’s platform backs law and order and family benefits — but also deliberately plays on anti-immigrant fears.

“Haider is a specialist in giving simple answers to complex questions,” Halpert said, “with a renewed record of inciting hatred against foreigners.”

Freedom Party posters promise “Austria First” and depict Haider as someone who “speaks our language.” Some show Haider and one of his candidates with thumbs up, with the slogan “Two Real Austrians.”

They call for a stop to “foreign infiltration” and “the abuse of asylum” – – code phrases for a total ban on immigration.

For the first time in postwar Austria, “there is a clear anti-Semitic and xenophobic insinuation,” said Halpert, who called the posters racist.

Earlier this month Haider said he would freeze immigration to Carinthia, where he was elected governor last spring.

Haider also has boosted his party’s support by presenting it as a fresh alternative to the two big parties, whose long domination of the political scene has helped create a sense of stagnation.

“Even though the idea of Haider as chancellor still seems threatening to the majority of Austrians,” Halpert said, “one can detect a certain desire for change in reference to the stale political system.”

Polls show that one-third of the electorate would accept him as opposition leader, and 20 percent want him as chancellor.

“Haider’s method, which you can see when he’s on television, is to attack, attack, attack the political establishment. He is so relentless in calling for change that I think that more and more voters no longer see him as as much of a threat as those who have ruled for so long,” said Edward Serotta, director of the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation.

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