VIENNA, AUSTRIA — Austria's conservative Freedom Party stunned Europe with a strong showing in Sunday's elections.
Early returns show that Jrg Haider, known for his far-right views and his perpetual tan, led his party into second place with 27.22 percent of the vote. It garnered 5 percent of the vote in the last election.
The conservative Austrian People's Party of Wolfgang Schuessel dropped to third place overall, losing 1.39 percent of the vote for a total of 26.9 percent.
Mr. Schuessel and other party leaders were hoping to win a large enough share of some 200,000 absentee ballots to ultimately overtake Mr. Haider's party, which outdistanced the conservatives by a mere 14,300 votes. The election's final results will be announced next week.
While Schuessel said he would honor his pre-election pledge to go into opposition if his party finishes third, he said Sunday he was confident the final result would keep his party in second place overall - and in the government. The Social Democrats of Chancellor Viktor Klima, which ruled in a coalition, lost ground but held on to win with 33 percent of the vote.
Despite the embarrassing outcome, Mr. Klima ruled out resigning, saying as leader of the strongest party he would try to form the next government.
Haider has gained ground in recent years, say analysts, because he has managed to address people's grievances in strident speeches and because of fears among many Austrians that the anticipated European Union expansion to the east - into the former Soviet bloc - could put jobs at risk. He is also telegenic and - for many - radiates charisma.
Many Austrians were puzzled by the fact that while Haider did well, some 47 percent of people queried in a poll said they are in favor of seeing the governing coalition remain in office.
Reaction throughout Europe focused on Haider's pro-Nazi comments. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera's front page carried an editorial cartoon with a figure of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler raising his right hand and yelling "Sieg Haider." The French Catholic daily La Croix, called Haider's success "authoritarian populism 'made in Austria.' "
"This is terrible, it is frightening ... the world has not learned from its history," said Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin.
Some European papers warned against scaremongering and said that Haider's performance should be a lesson to overly complacent governments.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society