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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 19:40 GMT
Taming Austria's far right
Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel
Schuessel's tactics were key in the far-right's downfall

The collapse in the vote for Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in the Austrian elections has got politicians around Europe scratching their heads, trying to work out what lessons they should draw from it.

Joerg Haider
Haider's Freedom Party lost two-thirds of its former supporters
Three years ago, the Freedom Party seemed to be leading a European march to the right.

Its entry into government with the mainstream conservative People's Party of Wolfgang Schuessel provoked outrage - and for a few months, a diplomatic boycott by Austria's partners in the European Union.

Parties sharing the same vehement opposition to immigration gained votes or joined governing coalitions in Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Last April, Jean-Marie Le Pen unleashed a political thunderbolt by coming second in the French presidential election.

But Sunday's parliamentary elections in Austria saw the Freedom Party's support slide from 27% to 10%. Most of those votes moved to the People's Party, in a personal triumph for Mr Schuessel.

There were special factors in this dramatic result. The most obvious was the self-destructive tactics adopted by Mr Haider, the charismatic eccentric who built up the Freedom Party, but in the summer started to pull it down.

Apparently jealous of the success of the party's moderate ministers in the government, Mr Haider picked a fight over the government's failure to cut taxes and forced them to resign.

He briefly resumed the leadership of the party only to step down again.

His repeated trips to Baghdad to meet President Saddam Hussein only made him look more erratic.


Something a little similar provoked the collapse of the Dutch Government last month.

The coalition included an anti-immigrant party founded by the populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered just before the election in May.

Far-right parties may lose credibility when their simple messages are exposed to the hard realities of government

A bitter, personal feud developed between two of the party's ministers.

They refused to talk to each other, and in the end it made the business of government impossible.

In this case, most people concluded that inexperienced far-right politicians were simply not up to the job.

One of the Dutch party's own officials remarked that it was brilliant at piling up the wood for its own funeral pyre and even providing the matches.

Clever tactics

But the Austrian election result is also seen by many observers as a vindication of Wolfgang Schuessel's decision to go into coalition with the Freedom Party.

He played a clever hand and can now argue that he has succeeded in undermining Mr Haider's appeal, even in marginalising him.

Mr Schuessel helped split the party by distinguishing between the extremists around Mr Haider and the responsible, competent people qualified to sit in the cabinet.

He has promised to re-appoint the Finance Minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, who defected from the Freedom Party.

At the same time, some of the Freedom Party's policies have been adopted by Mr Schuessel's own party - its hardline stance against asylum seekers, for example.

Rightward move

So there is a double lesson for Europe as a whole.

Yes, it may be possible for a mainstream conservative party to outwit and tame a populist, far-right leader.

But in doing so the mainstream party will itself feel impelled to move to the right.

An analogous debate has exercised some Arab and Muslim opinion - whether to allow militant Islamic parties into government in the hope of discrediting them, or keep them out at all costs on the grounds that once in, they would never give up power.

In Europe, far-right parties may lose credibility when their simple messages are exposed to the hard realities of government.

But their anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner message is still potent and will have an impact on wider European policy - for instance, on whether to allow Turkey to join the European Union.

The BBC's Tristana Moore
"Who will Chancellor Schuessel invite into his new government"
See also:

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