ROME, Feb. 22 (JTA) — A quarter of a million people have braved icy rain in Vienna to protest the inclusion of Jorg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party in the new Austrian government.
Saturday’s protest extended well beyond the Austrian capital, with thousands taking part in anti-Haider demonstrations in a number of other European cities.
Some 9,000 took to the streets in Paris, and 10,000 demonstrated in Brussels. Other demonstrations were held in London and Oslo.
In Belgrade, Yugoslavia, about 50 young people marched to the Austrian embassy carrying banners against both Haider and Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian ultranationalist who is deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia.
The Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in Austria’s elections last October, becoming the country’s second largest party. It took office Feb. 4 in coalition with the conservative Peoples Party. The move polarized Austria internally and isolated it in the international arena.
Years ago Haider praised Hitler’s employment policies and members of the Nazi SS, but he later apologized for the remarks.
To coincide with Saturday’s demonstration in Vienna, private Austrian sponsors took out a full-page ad in the International Herald Tribune calling for international support for the majority of Austrians who did not vote for Haider or the Freedom Party.
The Vienna rally, the biggest anti-government protest in Austria since the end of World War II, drew protesters from across Austria and abroad.
It took place in Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, the same vast square where jubilant Viennese cheered Hitler when he announced Austria’s annexation to the Nazi Reich in 1938.
This time demonstrators lit candles and waved placards comparing Haider with Hitler.
During the evening, Haider was forced to flee a Vienna restaurant under police escort after it was besieged by protesters.
Austrian government leaders dismissed the protests.
Before the demonstration, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, leader of the Peoples Party, predicted that tensions would ease after it was over.
“I expect that once again, there will be another emotional outpouring at the weekend with big demonstrations, where the old leftists, the 1968 generation, young people and the Internet generation can get out and let off steam,” he told Switzerland’s Neue Zuercher Zeitung.
“Then things will at some point return to normal.”
In a statement Sunday, Peter Westenthaler, the parliamentary leader of the Freedom Party, called the demonstration “nothing more than a rather thin deployment of the Communist International with Austria’s socialists.”
The protests were aimed at forcing the government to resign, but Austrian Jewish writer Robert Menasse, who took part in Saturday’s rally, cautioned that the opposition Social Democrats had to make sure it had a viable political platform to replace it.
“It would be a real drama if the government stepped down tomorrow,” he told a newspaper interviewer. “We would really be in trouble. The Social Democrats themselves need time to renew themselves.”