- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

VIENNA — The far-right Austrian Freedom Party suffered a sharp setback in a test election yesterday, reflecting a loss of popularity since its founder, Joerg Haider, and his sister, Ursula Haubner, left the party to form a new one a week ago.

The party, part of an uneasy coalition government led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel’s People’s Party, got only 11.53 percent of the vote in municipal elections in the federal state of Vorarlberg, compared with 17.13 percent five years ago.

The result was in line with a poll released on Friday that showed only 6 percent of voters across the state supported Mr. Haider’s new BZO party, while just 3 percent said they would vote for the Freedom Party.

The designated leader of the Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, blamed Mr. Haider for his party’s slumping fortunes. Yesterday’s election setback “results from the failed policies of Haider and Haubner and from the ‘kamikaze’ action last week,” Mr. Strache said.

Mr. Haider, governor of the federal state of Carinthia since 1999, announced last Monday the inauguration of a new party, called Bundnis Zukunft Osterreich (BZO), or Movement Future Austria.

Several leading Freedom Party figures, including Mrs. Haubner, came with Mr. Haider to the new party, ending a monthslong power struggle.

Austria now is governed by Mr. Schuessel’s People’s Party in coalition with Mr. Haider’s BZO ? a party that has never contested an election.

Legislative seats are “connected to the person and not to the party,” explained Peter Gerlich, a professor of politics at the University of Vienna.

Although Mr. Schuessel has had a difficult relationship with Mr. Haider, he wants to keep the coalition alive. “My job is not to call for elections every two years,” he has said. “Haider is a responsible person.”

But Mr. Gerlich calls Mr. Haider’s actions “psychiatric.”

“He does not take responsibility, but he cannot bear it if others do. He was very successful in opposition, and he acts as if he still was there,” Mr. Gerlich said.

As a condition for continuing the coalition, Mr. Schuessel demanded a written declaration that Mr. Haider’s new party will work constructively until the next elections ? especially during the first half of 2006, when Austria will lead the European Union. Because some former Freedom Party parliamentarians do not want to sign, Mr. Schuessel has not yet received the declaration.

Mr. Haider has for more than a decade opposed Austria’s membership in the European Union, which imposed sanctions on the country for seven months after the Freedom Party first joined the government in 1999.

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