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Disenchanted Austrian Voters Could Turn to Far Right

Fed up with government bickering and growing economic uncertainty, Austrian voters could hand the far right big gains in general elections on Sunday.

Werner Faymann, leader of the Austrian SPÖ party

The new face of Austria's far right Christian Strache, right, is drawing voters

If opinion polls prove correct, the Austrian far-right may notch large gains in general elections on Sunday, Sept 28.

Austria's voters appear to be fed up with rising inflation (at 3.9 percent, a 15-year high), poor integration of the country's large immigrant population, and the inability of the current government to do much about either.

The combined poll numbers of Austria's two far right-parties, the Freedom Party and the Alliance for Austria's Future are hovering around 25 percent. That would represent the best draw for the Austrian far-right since 1999, when then-Freedom Party (and now Alliance) leader Jörg Haider stunned Europe by garnering 27 percent.

Such a tally might well leave Austria's neighbors aghast, but one pollster, Andreas Kirchhofer of IMAS, told news agency Reuters that Austrians may be casting their votes against their current leaders more than for the rightists.

"They are fed up with the left-right coalition," he said. "They want another kind of government, but they don't really know exactly what that should look like."

Not-so-grand coalition

The country's ruling grand coalition of the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) and center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) has had a rough ride in its less than two years in power.

The People's Party, stunned to have drawn less votes than the Social Democrats in 2006, have never really taken to their junior partner role, preferring to stave off major leftward policy shifts and bide their time rather than engage with the SPÖ.

Luckily for the People's Party, the Social Democrats have had myriad problems of their own. The man who took office as chancellor following the last elections, Alfred Gusenbauer, has not proven an effective leader. Prone to gaffes and unable to marshal public support for controversial policies such as the institution of public service in place of university fees, Gusenbauer lost his post as SPÖ party leader to Werner Faymann in June of this year.

Werner Faymann, leader of Austria's SPÖ party

Austria's Social Democrats are pinning their hopes on new party leader Faymann to pull them out of a slump

Faymann, for his part, promptly reversed his party's long-standing position not to hold a referendum on Europe. In a letter to the populist, anti-EU tabloid Kronen Zeitung, Faymann said his party now wanted one.

With the Social Democrats in seeming disarray, their conservative coalition partners in the ÖVP called a snap election in July. But worsening economic conditions in the months since, along with some shrewd maneuvering from the far right, mean the ÖVP may come to regret the decision.

The ÖVP currently trails the SPÖ in opinion polls, and while they both enjoy comfortable leads over fringe parties, the two big parties' combined total looks set to dip below 60 percent for the first time since World War II.

As an editorial in the conservative newspaper Die Presse recently had it, "The only thing that's clear is that the 'winner' will also be a loser, because the voters want to punish them."

The winner in all this is likely to be the far right.

Right man at the right time?

The new face of Austria's far right is Heinz-Christian Strache. While he may lack the charisma of his predecessor Jörg Haider, Strache has clearly learned from him.

Since breaking with the Freedom party in 2005, Haider's star has waned and Strache's has grown -- mostly by emulating Haider. Strache ran a campaign in Viennese elections with posters featuring slogans like "Vienna must not become Istanbul!", a more strident take on Haider's old " Vienna must not become Chicago!" poster by targeting voters' cultural fears directly, not just through the guise of crime.

A vandalized Austrian campaign poster of Christian Strache and Joerg Haider

It seems not everyone in Austria is enamored by the far right

Strache may also have benefitted from his youth. The Haider formula always traded on the man's relative vitality -- physical fitness, sharp dress, sun tan. Strache has all of these traits, and as a trained dental technician, he can also claim brilliantly white teeth. And such a package may be a bit more convincing in the 39-year old Strache than in Haider, now 59.

The similarity has not gone unnoticed. Haider himself runs advertisements touting himself as "the original," and ÖVP party leader Wilhelm Molderer snapped in a recent television debate that Strachen was "just a poor copy of Jörg Haider in the '80s."

A stinging remark, but perhaps a backhanded compliment as well. After all, Jörg Haider in the 80's was a rousing success. In his first election in charge in 1986, Haider helped double the party's returns from 1983 to almost 10 percent, and by 1999 had taken it up to 27 percent.

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