- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

VIENNA, Austria The anti-immigrant Freedom Party that convulsed European diplomacy stands to lose handily when Austrians vote in parliamentary elections today. But, while down, the party still may not be out.
Polls predict it will win between 11 percent and 13 percent, a sharp drop from 1999 when it came second with 27 percent and joined a coalition with the business-friendly People's Party of Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, which had come in third.
Alarmed by then-party leader Joerg Haider's anti-foreigner stance, veiled slights of Jews and open admiration for some of Hitler's supporters, the European Union imposed seven months of diplomatic sanctions on Austria. a fellow member state.
Israel recalled its ambassador and hasn't returned him.
EU officials now concede that sanctions were a mistake because the union then dominated by left-wing governments had punished a member for making a democratic choice to shift to the right.
The Freedom Party's success turned out to be the harbinger of a trend in Europe that saw conservative anti-immigration mavericks make gains in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere.
On the eve of elections, this nation of 8 million returns to the polls, and the Freedom Party is down but not out. Mr. Schuessel's party and the opposition Social Democrats were running neck-and-neck in opinion polls Friday with around 37 percent each. That means the winner will need a coalition partner.
For the Social Democrats it would likely be the environmentally driven Greens, meaning a government similar to neighboring Germany's.
For Mr. Schuessel, the most likely partner would be the Freedom Party.
Weariness with the status quo pushed many voters in 1999 to embrace Mr. Haider and his establishment-bashing line that Austria's problems were caused by the corruption and favoritism of "those in power."
Now, with disillusion great about the state of Mr. Haider's party, most of those polled would prefer renewal of the socialist-conservative "Grand Coalition" that preceded the present government.
To broaden the party's appeal and ease Austria's isolation in Europe, Mr. Haider deliberately refused a Cabinet post and gave up the party leadership. But even if the Freedom Party remains in the coalition, its influence will be much diminished something that Mr. Haider is blamed for even by former supporters.
"We overestimated him," says Peter Sichrovsky, the party's former general secretary and its only high-profile Jew, to whom it often fell to defend his boss against accusations of anti-Semitism.
Mr. Sichrovsky broke with Mr. Haider in September after Mr. Haider's quarreling with party officials led to resignations from the Cabinet and elections more than a year early.
Mr. Sichrovsky now describes the rugged 52-year-old Mr. Haider as a once-charismatic figure turned "tragic clown."
Voter Kurt Wendl, a self-described former Haider supporter, said that he, too, had turned against him, citing the purges that left the party in chaos.
"They had a chance, and they blew it," he said. Asked whom he would vote for, he said: "I don't know, but surely not the Freedom Party."
Mr. Haider angered many supporters by visiting Iraq and defending Saddam Hussein.


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