Austrians' Frustration Opened Way to Far Right

By Sands, David R. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Austrians' Frustration Opened Way to Far Right


Sands, David R., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Political stagnation at home and overreaching in Brussels are key reasons why one of Europe's most prosperous countries is poised to accept an anti-immigration, populist right-wing party into its government, analysts say.

Austria's Freedom Party could strike a deal as early as this week with the conservative People's Party on a coalition government, shoe-horning the leftist Social Democrats out of government for the first time in 30 years.

The prospect has roiled governments in Europe, Israel and the United States, which cite both the Freedom Party's anti-immigration and anti-European Union platform and party Chairman Joerg Haider's string of past comments widely seen as minimizing the crimes of Austria's Nazi era.

But Austrian political observers say the attraction of Mr. Haider's party can only be understood in light of the frustration many voters feel with the country's political status quo, as well as what is seen as meddling by unelected European Union bureaucrats in faraway Brussels.

French political analyst Jean-Yves Camus, who has studied the far right in Europe extensively, says Austria's Freedom Party is part of a growing group of parties on the continent that are not fascist but a "neo-liberal populist right."

Such parties "prosper in political systems that are paralyzed, where power does not alternate between government and opposition, and where the left-right divide has been blurred."

"Whatever people think of the Freedom Party, the fact has been that anybody unhappy with the system in Austria for a long time had nowhere to go," said Clay Clemens, an expert on European politics at the College of William and Mary.

The liberal, urban-based Social Democrats, now under outgoing Chancellor Viktor Klima, have run the country for the past 13 years in alliance with the People's Party, whose voter base is more rural and Roman Catholic. The "Red-Black" coalition has developed an elaborate spoils system of contracts and jobs known in Austria as the "proporz."

The Freedom Party, which has called for tax cuts and deregulation of the heavily state-controlled economy, has clearly benefited from rising disgust with the cozy political arrangements.

The division of power, dating back nearly to World War II, is so deeply ingrained in the two governing parties that "for the coalition to renounce the proporz is just as credible as a heroin addict's promise never to touch a needle again," said Christian Ortner, publisher of the Austrian news magazine Format.

Tensions within Austria have only grown since the Oct. 4 parliamentary elections, when Austrian President Thomas Klestil maneuvered for months to promote a revival of the Red-Black coalition, even though Mr.

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