Austrian Far-right Party Trounced, but Could Still Assume Coalition Role

Austrian far-right leader Jorg Haider has announced his retirement from politics, but Austria-watchers may want to hold their applause for now.

Haider made the announcement Monday, a day after his Freedom Party suffered a crushing defeat in national elections that gave a clear victory to the conservative People’s Party.

After the Freedom Party won only 10 percent of the vote — a drop of almost 17 points from the party’s record showing in 1999 — Haider said he would resign as governor of Austria’s Carinthia province.

It was not clear, however, whether Haider’s announcement was genuine or a ploy to get his party to rally around him. Haider has “resigned” the party leadership several times before.

Early elections were called recently after Haider triggered a coalition crisis by retaking control of the party he led for 15 years.

Jewish groups in Austria and abroad long have kept a wary eye on Haider, who has sought a base of support — particularly among disaffected Austrian youths — with a xenophobic stance laced at times with a heavy dose of anti- Semitism.

Several years ago, Haider praised Hitler’s “decent employment policies” and described Nazi Waffen SS troops as “men of character.” He later apologized for the remarks.

Jewish observers are not the only ones concerned by Haider’s past political successes.

The European Union introduced political sanctions against Austria when Haider’s far-right Freedom Party entered the country’s governing coalition in February 2000.

The sanctions were dropped in September 2000 after an E.U. panel said Austria had not abandoned its commitment to human rights.

Haider resigned that year as head of the Freedom Party, but remained its dominant figure.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel called early elections several months ago after in-fighting within the Freedom Party left Haider and his far-right wing in control of the party.

Haider raised eyebrows in early November by making his second visit to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in recent months. At the time, Haider said he saw great potential for economic relations between Iraq and Austria.

If Haider’s visit was calculated to win more votes for his party, it failed badly.

Following Sunday’s vote, the number of Freedom Party seats in the Austrian National Assembly will drop from 42 to 19.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, welcomed the outcome.

“The most important result of the Austrian election is that extremism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism were clearly trounced,” he said.

Analysts said the major beneficiary of defections from the Freedom Party was Schuessel’s People’s Party, which received 42 percent of the vote, up from 27 percent in 1999.

The left-of-center Social Democrats, traditionally Austria’s biggest party, took second place with 37 percent. The Greens won only 9 percent.

Observers across Europe saw the results as a clear mandate for the center-right.

But despite the Freedom Party’s setback, Schuessel may again ask them to join his coalition.

Schuessel is now weighing his choices for a coalition partner. Because of his party’s strong showing on Sunday, he has more choices this time than in 1999.

Many observers said it was unlikely that Schuessel would invite the Social Democrats into his next government.

This would leave the Freedom Party in a good position — especially if Haider sticks to his resignation announcement or, as he did in 2000, assumes a behind-the-scenes role in the party.

Ariel Musicant, the leader of Austrian Jewry, is concerned that the return of the Freedom Party to the government will spell a continuation of the nation’s restrictive immigration policies.

That would hurt Austria’s shrinking Jewish community, which now has fewer than 8,000 members, Musicant told JTA in a telephone interview.

In a separate election Sunday, Musicant was re-elected for a five-year term at the helm of the nation’s Jewish community.

“There is not the slightest reason to celebrate right now” over the Freedom Party’s poor showing Sunday, he said.

But Avraham Toledo, the charge d’affaires of the Israeli Embassy in Vienna, was not quite so pessimistic.

Schuessel knows that “if he takes back the same government, he will have Haider with all his craziness again, breathing onto his neck all the time,” Toledo said.

Schuessel should take Haider’s past behavior “into consideration, but he doesn’t need our advice for that,” Toledo added.

If so many voters signaled their disapproval of the Freedom Party, Schuessel should get the hint that voters “don’t want to see the same government again,” Toledo said. “To be at the same wedding again seems a bit unfair.”

Meanwhile, Israel still has not replaced Ambassador Nathan Meron, who was recalled from Vienna in February 2000 when the Freedom Party joined the government.

Should the Freedom Party be shut out of the next coalition, Israel will consider raising the level of diplomatic relations with Austria, Toledo said.

Observers believe that Toledo, who has been in Austria since the summer of 2001, likely would be Israel’s next ambassador.

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