- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

VIENNA, Austria The ultra-nationalist Freedom Party suffered a major setback yesterday when its popularity slumped in Vienna city elections.
The vote, in an area that is home to one-fifth of the national electorate, saw the party fall from its record high of 28 percent in 1996 to 20.25 percent.
It was a blow for Jorg Haider, the party's former leader and still the power behind it. He joined the campaign for the city council in Vienna late, making a last-minute appeal for votes as the party floundered with a week of electioneering to go.
He was credited with boosting the party from poll levels of around 16 percent before he entered the race. This permitted it to secure second place, ahead of Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel's conservatives.
Mr. Haider had claimed he would be content with a 20 percent share of the vote, which his party just achieved.
But commentators believe that the drop in support may lead him to conclude that being part of the national government is damaging his party, so it could withdraw from its coalition with Mr. Schussel.
Mr. Haider stepped down as party leader in May in the face of sanctions from Austria's European Union partners in protest at his strong anti-foreigner rhetoric.
In the Vienna campaign, he returned to his provocative style, charging that the head of the country's Jewish community was "dirty" and backing the Vienna Freedom Party's anti-foreigner rhetoric.
The Socialists, who have controlled Vienna since the end of World War II, retained their large majority, winning 46.8 percent compared with 40 percent in 1996.
The conservative People's Party remained unchanged on 16 percent, while the Greens almost doubled support to 12.5 percent. The minority left-wing Liberal Forum was the biggest loser. The left-wing party, which formerly gained 6 percent of the vote, was voted off the council.
In Germany, meanwhile, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrat Party increased its vote in two regional elections in southwestern Germany, boosting Mr. Schroeder's hopes for a second term.
In Germany, the opposition Christian Democrat Union struggled yesterday to regain its poise after a party funding scandal involving former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The party successfully defended the stronghold of Baden-Wurttemberg in the face of an improved Social Democrat showing, but recorded its worst result ever in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Its performance is bound to lead to questions about the effectiveness of party Chairman Angela Merkel and and Friedrich Merz, who leads the party in parliament.
The far-right Republican Party had a disastrous result. The party, which held 14 seats in the Baden-Wurttemberg state parliament before the poll, slumped from 9.1 percent in 1996 to less than 5 percent, losing the right to representation in the assembly.
The Green Party also fared poorly in both states. Delegates blamed the performance of Green ministers in government, particularly Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin.
According to the exit polls, the governing Social Democrats won about 44 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate, compared with less than 40 percent five years ago.
The Christian Democrats dropped to about 36 percent from nearly 39 percent.
In Baden-Wurttemberg, the CDU won 45 percent of the vote, up from 41 percent in 1996. The Social Democrats won 33.5 percent, a strong rise from 25 percent five years ago.


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