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Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 10:45 GMT
Austria's far right in decline
Supporters of Joerg Haider
This election may leave the far right on the margins
Angus Roxburgh

Three years after it became Europe's first country in recent history to vote a far-right party into power, Austria goes to the polls this Sunday looking set to reverse the trend.

A massive swing back to the centre-left and centre-right parties which have traditionally governed there is widely expected.

Latest polls (%)
People's Party: 36.4 / 35.6
Socialists: 35 / 35.5
Greens: 12.6 / 13.1
Freedom Party: 12.4 / 11.9
Joerg Haider, whose pro-Nazi and anti-foreigner sentiments appalled other European nations but won him 27% of the vote in 1999, is sitting this election out.

His Freedom Party is placed only fourth in opinion polls, with just over 10% of the vote.

The race for first place - and the right to try to form a new coalition - could scarcely be closer, with the Social Democrats and the centre-right People's Party, led by the incumbent Chancellor, Wolfgang Schuessel, both on around 35-36%.

With the Greens just ahead of the Freedom Party on about 12%, there are several coalition permutations, most of which leave the far right looking marginalised.

Odd tactics

Its only hope of clinging to power would be if its combined tally with the People's Party beats the combined vote of the Social Democrats and Greens.

Outgoing chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel
Schuessel: Tough but not "nasty" right-winger
Chancellor Schuessel is keeping his options open. He says he would consider forming a coalition with any other party.

But there is a big chance that the Freedom Party will be consigned to opposition.

Why should this have happened, and does it spell the beginning of the end for the far right across Europe?

The answer to the first question is easier.

Joerg Haider's tactics have been odd. He never joined the coalition government, and even gave up the leadership of his party, remaining (in theory) only governor of the province of Carinthia, while in fact pulling the strings behind the scenes.


The Freedom Party's popularity waned as it settled into a role in government, while the individual popularity of its ministers grew: they no longer seemed to represent a far-right threat, and cultivated a moderate, mainstream image - not, apparently, to Haider's liking.

Haiders' visits to Saddam Hussein were no masterstroke

Earlier this year he seemed to overplay his hand. He precipitated a crisis (over his ministers' abandonment of a pledge to cut taxes) and caused the downfall of the coalition and fresh elections.

At first it seemed he might wish to regain the party leadership and stand for the Chancellorship.

Instead, the party descended into infighting, and he ended up sidelined, and even less popular for having brought down the government.

His visits to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad were no masterstroke, either, at a time when most Austrians were minded to side with Western opinion on Iraq.

European populists

Chancellor Schuessel, by contrast, proved a master tactician.

Joerg Haider
Haider says he won't talk about coalitions
He poached one of the Freedom Party's most popular figures, the Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, who defected from Haider's ranks on the promise of retaining his post in a future Schuessel government as an "independent", even if the Freedom Party nose-dives.

Schuessel had already stolen much of the Freedom Party's thunder, by adopting harsher immigration policies - offering voters a tough right-wing programme without the "nasty" side associated with Haider's Freedom Party.

Now Haider is in a huff, saying he will not even participate in post-election coalition talks.

Other countries may follow Austria away from far-right politics

But is this the end for him? It certainly looks increasingly like it.

He himself appears to anticipate this by searching around for allies in other countries. He hopes to form a pan-European "right-wing populist" party in time for the next European parliament elections in 2004.

But other countries may follow Austria away from far-right politics, just as they followed it into them over the last three years.

In most European countries mainstream governing parties have pushed through anti-immigration policies that were once key vote-winners for the far right, thereby weakening their appeal.

Sunday's results in Austria may give the first indication of whether the far right's bloom is set to wither across the continent.

Angus Roxburgh is the author of Preachers of Hate, the Rise of the Far Right, published on 7 November 2002 by Gibson Square Books

See also:

09 Sep 02 | Europe
01 May 00 | Europe
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