It has been the most emotional election campaign in Austria's postwar history -- a campaign that has been watched, commented on, and perhaps influenced like none before. Austrians go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president. It seems simple enough, but the international furor over the background of candidate Kurt Waldheim has turned the election upside down.
Until March, the campaign moved sluggishly and without surprises. But that changed dramatically with the publication of information about Dr. Waldheim's wartime record under the Nazis.
Suddenly the former Austrian foreign minister and UN Secretary-General found himself in a storm of controversy. Waldheim's critics have leveled two main charges against him:
He was a member of two Nazi organizations when he was a student.
Waldheim at first denied membership in any Nazi organization, but later said his name could have been included in membership lists without his knowledge.
He served in the German Army in the Balkans after 1941 and that the unit in which he served was involved in brutal fighting and reprisals against Yugoslav Partisans. His critics allege that he was a first lieutenant on the staff of the German Army command headquartered in Salonika, Greece in 1943, during a time when 42,000 Jews were deported to death camps.
Waldheim's autobiography makes no mention of military service in the years after 1941, when he was wounded on the Eastern front. Since his record has been questioned, however, he clarified his story by saying he was a ordnance officer and interpreter. He admits he was stationed near Salonika, but claims not to have known about the deportation of Jews or other crimes.
Documents have come to light which implicate Waldheim, but none proves him a war criminal. Investigators in Austria, Israel, and the United States continue to probe documents in hopes of finding the truth.
The source of many of the allegations against Waldheim has been the World Jewish Congress. In press conferences and publications, the congress has consistently charged Waldheim with hiding his past and with personal involvement in Nazi crimes.
In Austria this has generated anti-Semitic feelings in certain quarters and a bout of soul-searching in others.
Suddenly, 46 years after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by the Germans) and 41 years after the end of World War II, a bitter debate has come to the surface here about Austrian's involvement with the Nazi's and any responsibility they have for complicity in Nazi atroicities.
Abroad, Austria has found itself the target of criticism -- something to which the easy-going Austrians are not accustomed. In a country where quiet diligence, both personally and nationally, has been the order of the day for more than four decades, this has brought a surge of nationalistic sentiment directed against what is seen as ``foreign interference.''
In the midst of this controversy, Austrians now are being asked to cast their votes.
Opinion polls show Waldheim leading the Socialist candidate Kurt Steyrer 47 percent to 44 percent. The remaining 9 percent is split between two other candidates, Freda Messner-Blau and Otto Scrinzi, and undecided voters. If Waldheim wins, he will become Austria's first non-Socialist president since the war.
If none of the four candidates wins an absolute majority Sunday, there will be a runoff election on June 8. Many Austrians look with fear and distaste at the possibility of this bitter campaign being prolonged.