Far-right Austrian politician poised to gain power

Polls show the Freedom Party, which has been called xenophobic and anti-Semitic, is gaining momentum as Austria's second strongest movement.

The December elections may well bring a historic change to Austria.

According to the latest polls here, Haider's anti-immigrant party is poised to outgrow its position on the country's radical fringe.

When Haider took over the small party in 1986, it was a refuge for former Nazis. At the time, it won less than 5 percent of the vote.

But in the last parliamentary elections in October 1994, The Freedom Party took 22.5 percent of the vote, earning 42 seats in Austria's 183-member Parliament. Those gains made it the strongest far-right party in Western Europe.

Recent polls for the upcoming elections indicate that the Social Democrats, led by Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, will get 31 percent to 33 percent of the vote.

The polls show that Haider's party may tie or even surpass Wolfgang Schussel's conservative People's Party.

Such predictions concern Jewish observers, who worry about the 7,500 Jews who live in Austria.

According to an American Jewish Committee survey released in May, at least one-third of Freedom Party supporters hold strong anti-Semitic views.

"More than one in three Austrians who support the Freedom Party see Jews as having too much influence on world events in Austrian society, reject Jews as neighbors and maintain that Jews are exploiting the Holocaust for their own purposes," said David Singer, AJCommittee director of research.

"A significant portion of Freedom Party supporters are open to Holocaust denial as well."

In recent years, neo-Nazis have desecrated Jewish cemeteries and perpetrated other anti-Semitic acts in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, saying they were showing support for Haider.

But Haider, as his popularity grows and he sets his sights on the Austrian chancellorship, has attempted to distance himself from any Nazi leanings.

"Neither in our party program nor in all my remarks will you find anything anti-Semitic," Haider said last week through a spokesman.

"The fact that we have not only Jewish people who sympathize with us but are also party members is being purposely withheld" by the media, he charged.

Haider also dismissed any connection with anti-Semitic acts carried out by neo-Nazis in his name, saying, "I have always repudiated the desecrations of Jewish cemeteries and similar activities."

And he denied his party is xenophobic.

"There is no racism in our ranks," he said. "The media and our adversaries keep very silent about the fact that we have, of course, party members and activists of very different origin, not only Europeans."

He said his immigration policy is "very clear" — deportation of illegal immigrants and the requirement that legal immigrants "have a proper living place and living quarters."

Elan Steinberg, World Jewish Congress executive director, blasted Haider's self-defense.

"That kind of double talk would have gone down very well in pre-World War II Austria," said Steinberg, who charged that Haider, rather than using blatant anti-Semitic or xenophobic public speech, couched his attitudes in code words that his audience would understand.

"He has a lot of baggage to carry with him because his party was originally composed of Nazi SS men," Steinberg added. "People avoid making anti-Semitic statements because they don't want to be labeled anti-Semitic. But actions speak louder than words."

To bolster his image, Haider recently insisted that John Gudenus, a member of the Austrian Parliament belonging to the Freedom Party, resign after a television interview in which Gudenus left the impression that he did not believe the Holocaust took place.

But even as he attempts to erase traces of extremism from his public persona, certain facts stand out in Haider's record.

In 1988, Haider was forced to resign as governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia after he expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler.

In February 1993, he attempted to collect between 780,000 and 1 million signatures for a popular initiative to declare Austria closed to foreigners and to institute several race-based laws.

The petition was signed by only 7 percent of Austria's eligible voters, and the entire incident was viewed at the time as a major political defeat for Haider.

Expected gains by Haider's Freedom Party in the upcoming elections are part of what is being viewed as a sea change in Austrian politics.

Since the end of World War II, Austria has been governed by either the Social Democrats or the People's Party, often in a so-called "grand coalition" of the two parties.

But in recent years, the popularity of the two parties has dropped off.

This occurred despite the fact that under the stewardship of the Social Democrats and People's Party, Austria has become the eighth richest country in the world and the third richest within the European Union, which the country joined in January after a contentious national referendum in June 1994.

Despite the country's wealth, many voters are disenchanted with what they view as a system of political cronyism in which the benefits of the country's economic growth only belatedly filter down to the public.

Some segments of the public have also grown disaffected with the high influx of foreigners — including refugees from the former Yugoslavia and immigrants from former Communist countries seeking a better economic future.

This growing anti-foreigner sentiment has clearly played into the hands of the xenophobic platform of Haider's Freedom Party.