Austria Backed Far Right in Protest Vote, Not Neo-Nazi Shift: Haider's Nationalist Policies Echo Movements in U.S. and Europe

Article excerpt

VIENNA, Austria - The strong showing by the extremist right in Austria's recent election doesn't mean jackbooted neo-Nazis will be marching through downtown Vienna anytime soon.

Instead, it reflects the political discontent swirling through Europe and the United States.

Austria's Freedom Party, dominated by its charismatic leader, Joerg Haider, can attribute much of its success to proposals to curb illegal immigration, break the stifling political patronage system and bolster industrial competitiveness in a country long dominated by the leftist Social Democrats.

While it's open to debate whether Mr. Haider has neo-Nazi leanings or is merely the consummate politician playing to whatever audience he faces, many of his conservative policies echo those gaining favor in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Haider has managed to cash in on the growing unease of the working class, which feels threatened by the influx of Eastern European immigrants since the fall of Soviet communism in 1989 and by the economic slump that has plagued Western Europe for several years.

Unemployment has risen, housing costs have climbed and the paycheck doesn't stretch as far as it once did.

The unease has boiled over into the middle class, frustrated by a heavy tax burden and onerous red tape that stifles entrepreneurship.

This dissatisfaction was reflected in the October election when Mr. Haider's party drew more than 27 percent of the European Parliament vote and came in second in the election for Vienna's City Council.

ANTI-POLITICIAN VOTE

"In the last 20 years, Austrians got used to economic prosperity and low unemployment. Nowadays we're seeing a change," said Brigitte Bailer, a researcher at the Austrian Resistance Archive. "People are afraid, and they don't want to deal with complicated explanations. They want easy explanations: Haider says foreigners and politicians are to blame."

Many regard the vote as a protest against the Social Democrats and their coalition ally, the conservative People's Party, and as a backlash against the European Union, which Austria joined in 1995.

Susanne Riess-Passer, vice chairman of the Freedom Party, said the organization wants to:

* Reform Austria's patronage system, which doles out civil service posts to party loyalists.

* Cut taxes, which can consume 50 percent of a worker's pay.

* Reduce social security benefits for the well-to-do.

The party also wants immigration to be controlled.

"We cannot have free immigration for everyone. We think immigration should be linked to how many jobs and how much housing we can provide," Ms. Riess-Passer said.

Many of the proposals are similar to movements in the United States, such as the Republicans' "Contract With America" two years ago, California's anti-immigration Proposition 187 and federal welfare reform.

In Europe, parallel trends are evident, with France and Germany taking tough stands on illegal immigration, Italy and Spain ousting corrupt long-governing parties and Germany loosening business regulations.

But in Austria, these policies come under intense scrutiny because of the country's Nazi past and because of questionable comments Mr. Haider has made since becoming party leader in 1986.

In 1991, he was ousted as governor of the province of Carinthia after saying the Nazis "had a proper employment policy in the Third Reich."

EXTREMIST OR MODERATE?

Last fall, he was blasted for telling a gathering of former Nazi soldiers - including members of the notorious Waffen SS - that they were "people of character. …