- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2000

Political stagnation at home and overreaching in Brussels are key reasons why one of Europe's most prosperous countries is poised to accept an anti-immigration, populist right-wing party into its government, analysts say.

Austria's Freedom Party could strike a deal as early as this week with the conservative People's Party on a coalition government, shoe-horning the leftist Social Democrats out of government for the first time in 30 years.

The prospect has roiled governments in Europe, Israel and the United States, which cite both the Freedom Party's anti-immigration and anti-European Union platform and party Chairman Joerg Haider's string of past comments widely seen as minimizing the crimes of Austria's Nazi era.

But Austrian political observers say the attraction of Mr. Haider's party can only be understood in light of the frustration many voters feel with the country's political status quo, as well as what is seen as meddling by unelected European Union bureaucrats in faraway Brussels.

French political analyst Jean-Yves Camus, who has studied the far right in Europe extensively, says Austria's Freedom Party is part of a growing group of parties on the continent that are not fascist but a "neo-liberal populist right."

Such parties "prosper in political systems that are paralyzed, where power does not alternate between government and opposition, and where the left-right divide has been blurred."

"Whatever people think of the Freedom Party, the fact has been that anybody unhappy with the system in Austria for a long time had nowhere to go," said Clay Clemens, an expert on European politics at the College of William and Mary.

The liberal, urban-based Social Democrats, now under outgoing Chancellor Viktor Klima, have run the country for the past 13 years in alliance with the People's Party, whose voter base is more rural and Roman Catholic. The "Red-Black" coalition has developed an elaborate spoils system of contracts and jobs known in Austria as the "proporz."

The Freedom Party, which has called for tax cuts and deregulation of the heavily state-controlled economy, has clearly benefited from rising disgust with the cozy political arrangements.

The division of power, dating back nearly to World War II, is so deeply ingrained in the two governing parties that "for the coalition to renounce the proporz is just as credible as a heroin addict's promise never to touch a needle again," said Christian Ortner, publisher of the Austrian news magazine Format.

Tensions within Austria have only grown since the Oct. 4 parliamentary elections, when Austrian President Thomas Klestil maneuvered for months to promote a revival of the Red-Black coalition, even though Mr. Haider's party finished second in the voting ahead of the conservatives.

A poll released last week showed that, in the face of the international uproar, the Freedom Party's support has grown from 27 percent in October to 33 percent now, a percentage point ahead of the Social Democrats and nearly twice the support of the plummeting People's Party.

And with traditional center-right parties in Europe largely embracing the EU's market, labor, and currency programs, many Austrians skeptical of globalization and the threat to sovereignty have found a home in the Freedom Party.

EU Commission President Romano Prodi, in comments to a German newspaper yesterday, conceded that real grass-roots fears of illegal immigration into Austria are bolstering Mr. Haider.

"We have Euro-skepticism in some countries, out of which political capital is being made," Mr. Prodi said. "Fears are being fomented. Populism is in demand."

Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based risk-analysis firm, evaluating Mr. Haider's success and recent gains by the right-populist People's Party in Switzerland, said fear of the EU and of losing a distinctive national identity played a role in autumn elections in both Austria and Switzerland.

"To a great extent, this is a reaction against those who have directly benefited from the transfer of power from the nation to Brussels and to other multinational organizations," said a Stratfor analysis.

Mr. Haider yesterday said his party would "shame" both domestic and foreign critics when it joins the government. Mr. Haider, governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia, is not expected to take a formal post in the new government in Vienna, which would be led by People's Party leader Wolfgang Schuessel.

Mr. Schuessel yesterday said the Freedom Party would have to moderate its anti-immigrant stands should it join the government.

While rejecting European criticisms that the proposed governing alliance would be "neo-Nazi," Mr. Schuessel also said Austria cannot "isolate itself politically."

With the two parties expected to report to President Klestil today about a possible deal, Mr. Haider said in a television interview yesterday: "It cannot be decided abroad what is to happen in Austria."

But the leverage he and his party will enjoy has brought sharp comments from Austria's EU partners and warnings from the United States that Mr. Haider not bring many of his past views and positions with him into the government.

"We know there are special circumstances about the Austrian vote," said one State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But we still think Haider is bad news."

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