ROME (JTA) — Austrians will go to the polls April 25 to vote for president after a volatile campaign that focused in part on right-wing extremism and raised the ghosts of Austria’s Nazi past.
Incumbent President Heinz Fischer, a Social Democrat, is expected to win a landslide victory over his main rival, Barbara Rosenkranz, a regional leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which once was led by the late Joerg Haider.
Two weeks ahead of the election, two public opinion polls showed Fischer, 71, with more than 80 percent of voter support, compared to 12 to 14 percent for Rosenkranz and 4 to 6 percent for Rudolf Gehring of the small Austrian Christian Party. Re-election of the popular Fischer was such a foregone conclusion that the main conservative force, the Austrian Peoples Party (OVP), did not put up a candidate.
Rosenkranz, a 51-year-old mother of 10, entered the race in early March in a bid many experts saw as a test for the Freedom Party’s staunchly anti-immigrant, law-and order, anti-European Union platform ahead of regional elections later this year.
The wife of a key longtime member of a now banned neo-Nazi party, Rosenkranz quickly sparked an outcry over ambiguous statements about the Holocaust and criticism of Austria’s tough 1947 anti-Nazi law.
In response, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the Catholic archbishop of Vienna, said that "Someone who questions the National Socialism prohibition law and fails to make clear statements regarding the Holocaust is not an option for me personally.”
Members of Austria’s 8,000-member Jewish community joined political, civic and social network groups in spearheading opposition to Rosenkranz’s presidential bid.
A Jewish community statement called her candidacy an "embarrassment" for Austria and a "mockery of the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Shoah."
Jewish community president Ariel Muzicant helped organize a candlelit anti-Rosenkranz rally on March 25, drawing thousands outside the Hofburg Palace, the seat of the Austrian presidency. The rally grew out of an anti-Rosenkranz Facebook group that had more than 91,000 members as of two weeks before the elections.
Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and many Austrians were willing supporters of the Nazi regime. But the victorious World War II Allies officially declared Austria "the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression."
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the country began a close examination of its World War II history, when Kurt Waldheim was elected president in 1986 despite revelations of a Nazi past.
Following the public outcry over her criticism of the Austrian law banning Holocaust denial, Nazi organizations and Nazi ideology as "an unnecessary restriction" on freedom of opinion, Rosenkranz signed a public declaration "disassociating" herself from Nazi ideology.
Critics, however, said her ambiguous views dated too far back to benefit from the apology. More than seven years ago, a journalist already had branded Rosenkranz a "closet Nazi.”
"Rosenkranz is on the extreme right wing of an already extreme right party," said Hanno Loewy, the director of the Jewish Museum in the western Austria town Hohenems.
Immigrants and Muslims, rather than Jews, are the main target of the Freedom Party’s rhetoric. About 500,000 Muslims live in Austria, and the party campaigns under slogans such as "The West is for Christians" and "Homeland instead of Islam.”
Rosenkranz has called for the reintroduction of border controls with Austria’s eastern neighbors in order to stop the "import of crime."
Despite their omission, Jews feel targeted. In March, vandals defaced the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz with anti-Jewish and anti-Turkish graffiti.
"The progeny of Muslims are for us what the Jews were to our fathers. Be on your guard. Jews and Turks, poisonous blood," read the graffiti, spray-painted in big letters on the outer wall of the camp, where more than 100,000 people were killed.
"FPO leaders and functionaries keep getting caught in open or coded Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi affairs," said American historian Stan Nadel, an expert on migration who teaches in Salzburg. "They don’t talk openly about Jewish conspiracies, just about ‘East Coast’ conspiracies."
Rosenkranz, he said, "doesn’t say the Holocaust never happened, she just says she believes in the history she was taught in school; she went to school at a time when school history courses generally stopped with 1918,” Nadel said. "Her anti-Semitic supporters know that and they understand she is covertly denying the Holocaust, but she hasn’t said it out loud, so she hasn’t broken the law.”
The Freedom Party’s outspoken leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, said his party’s views were justified by a poll last week showing that 54 percent of Austrians believe that Islam poses "a threat for the West and our familiar lifestyle."
The survey, conducted by the IMAS polling agency, showed that 72 percent believe Muslims would "not stick to the rules" when it comes to living in Austria and 71 percent believe Islam "does not match western beliefs in democracy, freedom and tolerance."
Strache, 40, a former dental technician, is expected to make a run for the provincial leadership when key elections are held in Vienna in October. Analysts say the Social Democrats may lose their absolute majority in the capital, and they predict sharp gains for the Freedom Party.
"I don’t think Rosenkranz will get that many votes in the presidential election, though if she succeeds in getting, say, 25 percent, that will already be quite a catastrophe," Loewy said. "The real challenge is what happens in Vienna this fall."