Disillusioned Central Europe Tilts to the Far-Right

Article excerpt

THE savage recession still blighting the economic landscape of Central Europe has stirred up troubling memories of the Second World War, dominating landmark elections in Austria and neighbouring Hungary, the political trend-setters of this region. For the first time since the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the two nations shared a political trend on the same day. On April 25, the Austrian electorate safely returned the widely popular Heinz Fischer, the veteran Social Democrat politician, as president for a second term in office - but it has also expressed a symbolically significant 15 per cent support for the controversial candidate of the far-Right. And on the same day, the decisive second round of the Hungarian elections granted a crucial two-third majority to the ultra-Conservative Fidesz party that may be pushed even further towards the Right by a radical-Nationalist opposition taking its place in Parliament on the Danube for the first time. The revival of the far-Right is evident throughout this region. An exception were the results of the Parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic on 30 May when unexpectedly three new moderate parties of the centre-right, including one formed by the former Foreign Minister, [Prince] Karel Schwarzenberg, the head of one of the old Austrian-Bohemian aristocratic families, emerged as winners. The German Handelsblatt (1 June) commented that the Czechs had voted wisely and had not fallen for the lures of extremist parties.

The outcome of the Austrian presidential elections was never in doubt. The Conservative People's Party did not even bother to put up a candidate while an attempt by a minor member of the Habsburg dynasty to stand for the Green Party failed to overcome legal objections preventing anyone connected to the former Imperial family from seeking the Presidency. The only serious third contender was Rudolf Gehring, the candidate of the small Christian party who won just over 5 per cent support. Voter turnout was miserable at 53.6 per cent. The presidential office is largely ceremonial. Yet the manner and outcome of the elections have given rise to deep anxiety within the country and beyond. For political analysts assess the significance of the contest as a test of support for the openly racist far-Right Freedom party (FPO), which was once led by the late Joerg Haider, in important regional elections that will take place later this year.

Fischer won 79.3 per cent of the vote. He projected a campaign image of a calm and benign, enormously civilized statesman able to unite with great patience and compassion even the most embittered political foes in the best national interest. He advised against allowing the populist FPO near a seat of power on the grounds that its brash politicians might damage Austria's hard-won goodwill abroad. And he argued that no country in its right mind would risk such an asset in the bitter aftermath of the worst global recession in half a century. But he carefully steered clear of any public discussion of the unease generated among Austria's partners within the European Union (EU) and elsewhere by its lucrative and dramatically widening trade relations with Iran. Austria's exports to that Islamic theocracy - including a lot of sensitive 'dual purpose' technology potentially useful for the development of atomic weapons and delivery vehicles - last year grew by 6 per cent while its exports to the rest of the world contracted by close to 20 per cent, according to an authoritative recent analysis published by The Wall Street Journal. The trade figures reflect government policy agreed at the highest level in the absence of public knowledge or consent. That policy circumvents the United Nations sanctions regime introduced by Austria's Western allies in an attempt to moderate the heady pace of the development of Iran's nuclear war fighting capacity. All this should have emerged as a fiercely debated election issue in any healthily functioning democracy. …