Far-Right Austrian Leader Faces Uphill Battle | Current Affairs | DW | 12.09.2002
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Current Affairs

Far-Right Austrian Leader Faces Uphill Battle

Controversial Austrian politician Joerg Haider has returned to lead his Freedom Party shortly ahead of new parliamentary elections. But polls indicate the right-wingers won't repeat their success of three years ago.

Austria's controversial politician Joerg Haider is poised to win his party's leadership

Austria's controversial politician Joerg Haider is poised to win his party's leadership

Only three days after early elections were announced in Austria, controversial politician Joerg Haider is poised to resume the leadership role in the far-right Freedom Party he abandoned two years ago. But polls say an election victory for his party seems unlikely.

Haider was a key factor in the government collapse last week when he instigated a party revolt over tax policies that led Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel to declare the Freedom Party unfit coalition partners. Schuessel immediately called for early elections, abandoning the conservative coalition between the Freedom Party and the center-right People's Party.

November 24th is widely expected to be the new date and Austrian politicians are paying close attention to this month’s parliamentary elections in Germany as an indicator for their own elections.

Polls indicate that Austria is now likely to follow in Germany’s footsteps and elect a government made up of a coalition between social democrats and the Green Party. Strategists on both sides said they will be looking for lessons out of the results of Germany's federal elections on Sept. 22.

Haider to win party leadership

Freedom Party delegates unanimously nominated Haider as party chairman on Wednesday, at a meeting of the party’s executive committee in Linz.

“There is no realistic alternative to Haider,” party General Secretary Karl Schweitzer said.

Haider was the charismatic figurehead that largely contributed to his party’s success in the elections in 1999 in which they came in second place. While he gained popularity in Austria, he tarnished his country’s image abroad.

Hours after Chancellor Schuessel announced a coalition government with Haider’s Freedom Party two years ago, the European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria. The EU’s diplomatic and political isolation of Austria was most likely aimed at Haider himself, who has made a number of controversial statements that many in the world community saw as anti-semitic and xenophobic.

In 1995, he referred to the World War II concentration camps as “punishment camps” and said that the Nazi SS “deserves all the honor and respect of the army in public life.” His statements against immigrants in Austria and the European Union have also caused alarm amongst international observers.

Haider is expected to be voted chairman at the September 21 party convention but not chancellor candidate. That honor will most likely fall to current Social Affairs Minister Herbert Haupt. While Haider has never made secret his intentions to be Austrian Chancellor, political analysts say he is reluctant this time around because he fears bad results for the party in this year’s elections.

Haider's revolt dissolves government

His party may not recover from last week's dispute amongst party members, which Haider led against his own party chairwoman and Austrian Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer. The dispute was over talks of a possible delay on proposed tax cuts.

Riess-Passer argued that taxes should not be cut until the government finished paying for damages caused by the recent flooding in Austria, but Haider firmly opposed any delay and rallied party delegates against her. Instead of bowing to his pressure, she and others resigned, triggering a government collapse.

Riess-Passer was actually Haider’s personal choice to replace him when he stepped down from the party leadership in May 2000. But Haider had shown increasing dissatisfaction with her performance and the tax-cut dispute was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Controversial politics

As Haider looks set to grasp the reins of national political power again, his agenda seems very much the same as before.

“The Freedom Party under Haider will once again be what it was in 1999 and earlier elections, a platform for protest voters,” Fritz Plasser of Austria’s Center for Political Research told Reuters. “It will be an all-around attack against everything, especially the polarizing issue of the effects of EU expansion on Austria,” he said.

Haider will likely repeat his calls to block EU expansion in eastern and central Europe. He has traditionally played up Austrian fears of job losses to immigrants from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Earlier this year, he called on the Austrian government to block the Czech Republic's entry to the EU if they did not shut down a nuclear power plant near the Austrian border.

The Social Democrats, who are leading in the polls have a very different campaign strategy.

“Our priorities are health care, social security, pensions, job creation and EU enlargement,” Social Democrat leader Alfred Gusenbauer said at his first campaign news conference.

Current polls spell bad news

Haider’s concerns over his party's chances seem justified. Recent polls indicate that the Freedom Party has only around 17 percent of the vote, with analysts putting the real number at closer to 15. In 1999, the party's anti-immigrant, anti-European platform gave them 27 percent of the vote.

The Social Democrats, who ruled the country for 30 years before losing power in 1999, are polled at 37 percent and are likely to form a coalition government with the Greens who are currently polling at around 14 percent.

Meanwhile, Schuessel and his People’s Party are focusing on diverting blame for the government’s collapse from themselves. But Schuessel still has high hopes.

“The election goal of the People’s Party is to remain the chancellor party,” Schuessel said, confirming that he will remain the party’s top candidate. Although he has indicated a wish to continue his coalition with the Freedom Party, their weak showings in the polls hint that he would have to look at other options.

But Haider is not on Social Democrat Gusenbauer’s list of coalition partners. He has indicated that he is open to any alliance except with Haider's party.

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