ROME, Feb. 1 (JTA) — A far-right party has forged an agreement to share power in Austria’s government in defiance of an unprecedented European Union threat to penalize the country.
The strong condemnation of Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider by the Europeans and the world community brought back memories of a Jewish-led campaign to isolate Austria in the 1980s.
Then, Kurt Waldheim was elected president despite revelations that he concealed a Nazi past.
The Haider controversy today bears similarities to the Waldheim affair, but in many ways it is strikingly different.
For one thing, much of Waldheim’s support grew from a resentful backlash against world Jewish organizations — a reaction that was heavily, and openly, tinged with anti-Semitism.
This time, Jewish leaders have voiced sharp criticism of Haider, but have mainly stayed out of the spotlight.
Instead Austria’s 14 European Union partners, vowing to rebuff any anti-democratic trends within Europe, had taken on the battle to keep the Freedom Party, and particularly Haider, out of the halls of power.
Although Haider has appeared to have negotiated a position for his party in the next Austrian government, the E.U.’s actions did give real weight to the pressure.
The restrictions applied to Austria during the Waldheim affair — including barring Waldheim from entering the United States — hurt, but they were more humiliating than meaningful.
Austria at the time was a neutral country seen as a buffer between NATO and the Soviet Bloc.
But Austria joined the European Union in 1995, and E.U. sanctions would have a real material effect on the country.
“What we have is a new situation,” said Edward Serotta, who directs the Vienna-based Central European Center for Research and Documentation. “The E.U. has never done anything like this before.”
Serotta, like other observers, predicted that there will be some backlash and resentment against the E.U. threat, but said the changed international situation will play a role in what comes next.
“Certainly there will be some circling of wagons,” he said. “But Austria was burned once before. The country saw the isolation because of Waldheim. It is possible that, if Haider keeps putting his foot in his mouth, support for him will waver.”
Indeed, an opinion poll in Profil magazine suggested that 60 percent of Austrians believe Freedom Party involvement in government would damage Austria abroad. Only a third expressed support for a center-right coalition. Thousands of Austrians took part in demonstrations against Haider last fall.
Significantly the E.U. move, announced Monday, came just days after leaders from 46 countries attended an international conference on the Holocaust in Stockholm which, among other things, called for more preventive diplomacy and an early warning system to alert leaders to racist problems that could escalate.
“If a party which has expressed xenophobic views, and which does not abide by the essential values of the European family, comes to power, naturally we won’t be able to continue the same relations as in the past, however much we regret it,” Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, whose government currently heads the European Union, told reporters Monday. “Nothing will be as before.”
Haider’s Freedom Party won more than 27 percent in general elections last October, becoming the country’s second largest party and representing the biggest breakthrough by a far-right party in Europe since the end of World War II.
This fact, combined with Haider’s charisma, personal background and political acumen — as well as Austria’s Nazi-tainted history — were all factors that combined to prompt the move.
There were protests and warnings from many quarters but no such concerted threat of sanctions, for example, when in 1994 three members of a neo-fascist party were included in a center-right Italian government.
The Freedom Party’s success and Haider’s personal rise are direct legacies of the Waldheim affair. For one thing, part of the party’s current electoral support comes from voters fed up with the “grand coalition” of the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, which have ruled since 1986.
The controversy over Waldheim led to two trends in Austria.
On one hand, it was the catalyst for a new openness in facing Austria’s role in the Holocaust and led to numerous government initiatives supporting Jewish causes and accepting responsibility for wartime persecution of Jews.
“Whatever the combination of forces that impel it, there is now, for the first time in postwar Austria, a serious commitment to fighting racism and anti-Semitism,” wrote Jewish scholar Robert Wistrich in a report last year on Austria and the legacy of the Holocaust.
On the other hand, he continued, “if the establishment has become more liberal in the wake of the Waldheim fiasco, the reservoir of provincial conservatism and of radical-populist protest remains formidable.”
This negative trend coalesced around the Freedom Party and particularly around Haider himself. He was elected leader of the party in 1986 when he was only 37 and radicalized it into a hotbed of national populism that appeals to “Austria for the Austrians.”
The son of Nazi supporters, Haider is a charismatic politician who is skilled in switching his positions and rhetoric to suit his audiences. He became infamous for statements that praised aspects of the Third Reich.
While promising law and order, family benefits, more jobs, and a flat tax, his rhetoric plays on fears that Austria will be “swamped” by immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Third World. As such, he loudly has warned against the planned expansion of the European Union to include several former Communist states.
Marta Halpert, director of the Vienna-based Europe office of the Anti- Defamation League, calls him a “strategic opportunist.”
“Haider brilliantly uses and therefore profits from his strategic opportunism,” she told an audience last month.
“Precisely, as if on a drawing board, he picks out and targets each social group he wants to conquer next. Thus, he dresses and acts like a blue-collar guy when aiming to win over the workers,” she continued.
“Changing into trendy designer suits, he turns to the 20-to-35 age group and talks of putting an end to the old corrupt dual-party system, where only Social Democrats and Conservatives could succeed because jobs were being filled by political appointees.”
Andras Kovacs, a Budapest-based sociologist who closely tracks nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, predicted that Haider would soon change his tune again — at least on the surface.
“I think Haider will change very soon, especially he will distance himself from every type of anti-Semitism, ‘Third Reichism’, etc, like Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale party, did in Italy,” he said. “All this is not important for Haider, and he was actually not very radical in these sensitive questions. What he said was meant for a certain Austrian audience for electoral purposes.”
In her presentation, Halpert stressed that critics of Haider should also look beyond his own powerful demagogy. She said the two leading parties, the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, “do have their share of responsibility for Haider’s electoral success.
“They ruled the country by dividing power between their elites, catering to their traditional clientele through social partnership, graft and patronage.”
In addition, she said, “they invited cheap laborers into the country when they were needed economically, but did not take measures for their social and political integration .
Vienna, she said, “ignored the gunpowder of daily cultural clashes, and that is exactly the playground where Haider could act out his nationalistic, xenophobic policy.”