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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 17:48 GMT
Austria's polarised poll
Alfred Gusenbauer, Herbert Haupt (Freedom Party) and Wolfgang Schuessel
Stark choice: Gusenbauer, left, versus Schuessel, right
Clare Murphy

Austria's far-right Freedom Party may be a spent force, but all the signs are that it has broken the mould of Austrian politics.

Joerg Haider
Haider: Party split triggered early election
The party's entry into government after its shock success in the 1999 elections brought an end to years of cosy "Grand Coalition" rule between the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party.

A return to those days is now hard to imagine.

After their three years in government with the Freedom Party the conservatives have shifted sharply to the right, while the Social Democrats, in opposition for the first time in three decades have moved to the left.

They would much prefer a coalition with the pacifist Greens - a combination that has not yet been seen in Austria on the national stage, but is now a definite possibility.

Crafty manoeuvres

It is clear that Wolfgang Schuessel's People's Party will do much better than 1999, when it came third with 27% of the vote.

Wolfgang Schuessel
Schuessel: Short of partners
This time it is neck and neck in the polls with the Social Democrats - both parties have ratings of 35% or 36% - and could take first place for the first time since 1966.

Mr Schuessel's trick has been to steal the Freedom Party's thunder and hence many of its voters - notably with a tough stance on immigration issues and a strong emphasis on traditional family values.

In the run-up to the election, the government launched a massive campaign against those deemed to be seeking asylum for "economic" reasons.


Both the Social Democrats and the conservatives have changed so much that any return to the Grand Coalition seems almost impossible

Emmerich Talos
Political analyst
Women and their babies have been ejected from refugee shelters, and immigrants from certain countries automatically deported with a handful of euros.

Mr Schuessel, it would appear, has effectively turned his conservatives into the one and only party of the right, offering Freedom Party voters many of the same policies but in a more competent pair of hands.

The incumbent chancellor however has one serious problem: without the Freedom Party as a coalition partner, his chances of returning to the top job are seriously diminished.

At the same time, he is unlikely to have much enthusiasm for a repeat of the uneasy partnership, which plunged from crisis to crisis in the 33 months of its short life.

Back to basics

The Social Democrats have also been repositioning themselves, bitterly attacking the neo-liberal policies of their former conservative coalition partners.

Alfred Gusenbauer
Gusenbauer: An Austrian Al Gore?
In 2000 the party made Alfred Gusenbauer, a 42-year-old intellectual its leader, replacing the photogenic moderniser, Viktor Klima.

The move was interpreted as a return by the party to its left-wing roots.

"Both the Social Democrats and the conservatives have changed so much that any return to the Grand Coalition seems almost impossible," says Professor Emmerich Talos Of Vienna University.

"It would be virtually unworkable."

While some have doubted whether Mr Gusenbauer - once dubbed the Austrian Al Gore - is chancellor material, his performances in head-to-head televised debates have been widely judged impressive.

He has not committed himself to any partnership with the Greens, who are running third in the polls.

Haider's promise

Turnout may prove vital in this tightest of electoral contests.

The far-right, which caused such upset when it entered government, may well end up totally marginalised.

Three years ago, Mr Haider promised a shake-up of Austrian politics if his party was elected.

One way or another, this may prove to be his one true legacy.

See also:

21 Nov 02 | Europe
09 Sep 02 | Europe
01 May 00 | Europe
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