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Austria’s Rightist Party Stuns Europeans with Success at Polls

October 15, 1996
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The strong showing of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria’s elections this week for the European Parliament was greeted ominously throughout Europe, with some warning that the party’s leader could become another Hitler.

Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party won 28 percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections.

The results placed the Freedom Party in third place, behind the People’s Party, the junior coalition party that scored 29.6 of the vote, and the governing Social Democratic Party, which gained 29.1 percent.

But the Freedom Party, which has explicitly called for a ban on immigrants and opposes Austria’s presence in the European Union, nonetheless received its biggest electoral success in Sunday’s vote.

The nationalist party’s total was some 6 percentage points higher than what it scored in December’s general elections.

Haider’s Freedom Party, the strongest far-right party in Western Europe, already holds five of Austria’s 21 seats in the European Union’s Parliament.

It emerged as the strongest party in the Austrian provinces of Salzburg and Carinthia as a result of Sunday’s vote.

European newspapers reacted with concern about Austria’s move to the right and warned of a rising wave of nationalism across the continent.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera wrote about the election under the headline “Racist Winds in Austria.”

A German newspaper, Saechsische Zeitung, compared Haider’s rising popularity with that of another Austrian native.

“It is true that Haider is no Hitler, but it is also true that he has the capacity to become one,” the newspaper said.

In a bid to increase his acceptance at home and in the European community at large, Haider had stunned critics by including a Jewish author on his party’s list for Sunday’s elections.

Peter Sichrovsky, 50, who ran in the second slot on the party list, will now join the Freedom Party’s representatives to the European Parliament.

Haider said the presence of a Jew in the anti-immigrant Freedom Party could improve his group’s standing in the Parliament, which routinely deals with such issues as human rights, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

“We will probably be less vulnerable, less open for attacks” with Sichrovsky in the party’s parliamentary delegation, Haider said in an interview before Sunday’s elections.

He added that he included Sichrovsky on the list to prove that his group “is an open party. In our Freedom Party, it does not matter which religion you have.”

According to an American Jewish Committee survey released last year, one in three supporters of the Freedom Party manifests strong anti-Semitic prejudice.

The party won nearly a quarter of the votes in Austria’s general elections last year.

Haider’s naming of Sichrovsky to the party list prompted outrage from Jewish critics, who referred to Sichrovsky as a traitor.

In the interview, Haider referred to this criticism as “petty, small-minded anti-Semitism.”

Sichrovsky, the author of 15 books and several dramas, defended his decision to join the Freedom Party, which he described in a pre-election interview as “one of the most interesting and most modern opposition parties, mainly because they are trying hard to modernize Austria.”

Sichrovsky, who described himself as a political conservative, attempted to deflect the criticism that many members of the Freedom Party have a Nazi past and are close to numerous anti-Semitic and right-wing groups.

“The other `democratic’ parties in Austria have just as many anti-Semites or old Nazis,” said Sichrovsky, whose parents fled to Britain from Austria before World War II. “The [Nazi] `tradition’ between 1938 and 1945 did not disappear and it is not exclusive” to the Freedom Party.

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