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Behind the Headlines: European Far Right Feels Triumphant After Strong Showing in Austrian Vote

Far-right leaders across Europe are saying the strong electoral showing made by their colleague in Austria could well be a harbinger of better days to come.

But as it became clear that the xenophobic Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, notorious for once praising Hitler, was locked in a close battle for second place in Austria’s general elections, the party’s gains triggered alarmist headlines across Europe and drew criticism from Jewish leaders.

“It is a horrible blow against European unification, against tolerance in Europe, against everything that has been achieved in Austria in the last 10 years,” Andreas Nachama, president of Berlin’s Jewish community, told JTA.

“I am worried about the influence it might have on Europe, on all the surrounding countries. It is the wrong sign in the wrong place.”

In Israel, officials expressed concern over the preliminary results of Austria’s Sunday elections.

“The Austrian people are facing a test, and they will have to show what kind of government is established and how it eradicates opinions and approaches so repugnant to the entire world,” said Foreign Minister David Levy.

In New York, the Anti-Defamation League said Sunday’s vote has “frightening implications for Austria’s political system and society.”

At the other end of political sensibilities, anti-Semitic Hungarian legislator Istvan Csurka predicted that the “strengthening of Haider’s party will bring basic changes in Europe.”

Other tributes poured in from far-right parties in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere.

The words of worry from opponents of the far right — and praise from its European supporters — came after preliminary results showed the Freedom Party with 27.2 percent of the vote, up from 22 percent in the last election in 1995.

It was the best showing by a far-right party in Europe since the end of World War II.

Haider called his party’s gains “sensational.”

The party was just 14,000 votes ahead of the conservative Austrian People’s Party, which won 26.9 percent, down from 28 percent in 1995.

The preliminary count showed Chancellor Viktor Klima’s Social Democratic Party still in first place, with 33.4 percent of the vote — a sharp drop from 38 percent in 1995 and the party’s lowest showing since 1945.

The Greens won 7.1 percent — a major increase from 4.8 percent last time.

Final results of the neck-and-neck race for second place, crucial for the formation of the next government, will not be known for several days, until some 200,000 absentee ballots are counted.

Whatever the final result, political observers predicted weeks, if not months, of complex haggling before a stable government is formed.

The Freedom Party’s success may represent more of a deep-seated desire by Austrians for political change than an endorsement of xenophobia or neo-Nazism.

An exit poll of 2,200 voters carried out by Vienna’s Center for Applied Political Research indicated that 47 percent of Freedom Party voters said they backed Haider because of his anti-foreigner policies.

But 65 percent said they wanted the party to expose scandal and misbehavior in government, 63 percent just wanted change and 48 percent had long been Freedom Party voters.

“Haider was relentless in calling for change,” said Edward Serotta, director of the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation.

“So much so that I think many voters saw him as less of a threat than the establishment, which has been in power for so long.”

Austria has been ruled for decades by the left-wing Social Democratic Party or the conservative Austrian People’s Party. For the past 13 years, these two parties have ruled together in a “grand coalition.”

Disaffected voters, fed up with what they see as a stagnant political scene, have been gradually deserting the two big parties for years, turning to the Freedom Party on the right and the smaller Green Party on the left.

Haider’s campaign presented the Freedom Party as an alternative, at the same time playing on people’s fears that immigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere would inundate the country and take their jobs.

He called for “Austria for the Austrians” and also campaigned against Austria’s continued membership in the European Union.

Klima, as head of the largest party, is expected to be asked to try to form a government.

But he has ruled out forming a coalition with Haider, and the People’s Party has pledged to go into opposition if they end up third. That means the Social Democrats may have to form a minority government whose stability could prove fragile.

“Haider had one short-term and one long-term goal,” said Marta Halpert, director of the European Office of the Anti-Defamation League.

“The first was to break up the `monopoly’ on power held by the current grand coalition, the Social Democrats and People’s Party, which have shared power for roughly 50 years.

“His foremost ambition — to become chancellor of Austria — is still up in the air.”

(JTA correspondents Naomi Segal in Jerusalem and Agnes Bohm in Budapest contributed to this report.)

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