Austrians divided over new government

The government was sworn in Friday; daily demonstrations have followed.

Austria continues the difficult process of settling in with the controversial new conservative coalition brokered by far-right politician Jrg Haider.

The Austrian public remains deeply divided over the new government. Thousands of demonstrators - some for, some against the new government - staged marches over the weekend. But many of Mr. Haider's opponents say his victory was complete long before his Freedom Party was sworn into power on Friday.

Haider's prominence in the headlines belies the fact that the populist firebrand has been stirring up nationalistic, xenophobic sentiments here for more than a decade.

"I am no more afraid now, because I knew it could only go this way," says Clement Mutombo, a sociologist from the Republic of Congo. "The most dangerous effects of Haider are indirect effects," adds Madeleine Petrovic, a member of Austria's Parliament with the Greens party. "Haider is not going to change laws. The danger is in the climate he has created."

Amid unprecedented opposition from abroad, some at home warn that all the attention will only further polarize Austria, consolidating the fear of outsiders that brought Haider's Freedom Party to power.

Israel has withdrawn its ambassador to Austria, and the US temporarily recalled its ambassador for consultation. Several European states, including Germany, current European Union president Portugal, and Finland, froze high-level political contacts with Vienna. They strongly object to the Freedom Party leader, who has in the past downplayed atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, but later apologized for such statements.

While his party holds several ministries, Haider is not himself a member of the new coalition under People's Party Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

In a television interview yesterday, Haider denied he would try to control national policy. "I would be a fool if I ruined this historical success, this change brought about by the Freedom Party in Austria, by constantly launching cross-fire from Carinthia." Haider is governor of the southern Austrian province.

He sharply criticized the reaction from abroad, noting, "The EU has not really imposed any sanctions against Russia over the brutal doings in Chechnya ... but tiny Austria, where nothing happened except we had an election, is suddenly the object of sanction discussions."

Austria's political landscape has changed considerably since 1993, when an anti-immigration plebiscite organized by the Freedom Party led to the biggest demonstration here since World War II, with 300,000 Viennese taking to the streets to oppose Haider's xenophobic policies. The early 90's also saw a rapid rise in the number of foreigners living in Austria, from 300,000 to 690,000 in just five years.

The alarm that greeted that development - fuelled by Freedom Party claims that the Austrian way of life was under threat - led the then-Social Democratic-led government to introduce far more restrictive immigration policies.

It is now rare to find a Freedom Party politician speaking of foreigners "taking advantage of the social hammock that is Austria" or immigrants out-birthing Austrians with the aid of fertility drugs provided free of charge by the state. But it can be argued that such inflammatory talk had the desired effect.

"Even when the Social Democrats were in power, they did what the Freedom Party wanted to do," says Mr. Mutombo.

Since 1994, the number of foreigners has remained at a steady 9 percent of the population, which now numbers 8 million. The majority, 46 percent, hail from the former Yugoslavia, while Turkish citizens comprise the next-largest group with 19 percent. But with immigration effectively brought to a halt, there are indications that Austrians are as racist as ever.

A survey by Eurobarometer, an EU-funded polling organization based in Brussels, found 42 percent of Austrians consider themselves "openly racist" or "somewhat racist," well above the EU average of 33 percent. Paradoxically, Austrians are also the least willing in the EU to believe that minorities suffer discrimination in the job market. Only 31 percent say minorities are at a disadvantage when it come to jobs. The EU average is 71 percent. Such statistics would be more understandable if Austrians had reason to feel disenfranchised. In fact, Austria is one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, with a strong economy and low unemployment. Despite their apparent prosperity, Austrians remain largely pessimistic about their prospects. A pre-millennium survey found that a majority believe their quality of life will take a serious downturn over the next decade: One in 3 fears becoming poorer, 61 percent believe unemployment will increase, and 58 percent say the number of immigrants will rise.

Haider's success is widely attributed to his uncanny ability to plug in to these concerns. "[Freedom Party voters] are mainly people who are afraid," says Ms. Petrovic. "Haider listens to what people say and says it louder."

"He uses this resentment to gain power," adds Mr. Schlager. "Whatever happens, Haider can use it to his advantage."

But the man himself has all but dismissed the controversy, saying the situation would surely "normalize" soon. "They will get used to us too," Haider has said.

It is exactly that prospect that has Western Europe worried. The governments most opposed to Haider, France and Belgium, are the most worried about the growing power of far-right movements in their territories.

Austrian Liberal Forum Party leader Heide Schmidt points out that the danger of Haider is taken far more seriously abroad than at home, suggesting that long-term exposure has led to a dangerous complacency in Austria. "Perhaps we [Austrians] have just become too accustomed," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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