The election of Kurt Waldheim to the Austrian presidency on Sunday is causing reverberations both at home and abroad. Austrian Chancellor Fred Sinowatz, leader of the Socialist Party, resigned Monday, following the party's poor performance against Dr. Waldheim. Finance Minister Franz Vranitzky will succeed Mr. Sinowatz.
On the international front, Israel has temporarily recalled its ambassador to Austria and is considering not naming a new ambassador this summer as scheduled.
Sinowatz's resignation is seen as the first step in the the fall of the Socialist government, which is expected to conclude in the general election scheduled for next April. The Socialist-led government has been in power for 16 years. It is not clear whether there was a connection between Sinowatz's resignation and the furor over Waldheim's past. A number of domestic issues played against the Socialists during the election.
But the Socialist's likely fall is something most Austrians would much rather face than the consequences of the international scrutiny of Waldheim's past that accompanied the presidential election. They would like the issue of Austria's past enthusiasm for Hitler to vanish, and many commentators here seem convinced that the issue will blow away of its own accord now that Waldheim has finally been democratically elected.
``The politicians of all parties would presumably like nothing better than to close the door behind the whole painful subject after [the] June 8 [election],'' commented columnist Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi in Profil news magazine. ``We would gladly then again be the small tourist land, without history, without tragedy, without responsibility. That can hardly succeed. If we must truly live with a President Waldheim, then we will not be spared further rethinking.''
Certainly the United States and Israel aren't likely to spare Austria further rethinking, so long as President Waldheim expresses only perfunctory regret about Austria's support of Hitler and his own conscript wartime service in Hitler's Army in the Balkans.
Waldheim, while acknowledging his Balkan service once the World Jewish Congress (WJC) discovered and publicized it in March, has steadfastly denied all of the Congress's more incriminating allegations that he played an active role in German Army atrocities in Yugoslavia or in the deportation of Greek Jews to their death. Even Austrians who are not fans of Waldheim note that evidence presented so far fails to document personal involvement by Waldheim in atrocities.
Waldheim's spokesmen think the issue is now dying down with a US Justice Department announcement that it will not act on a pending recommendation to bar Waldheim from visiting the US as a suspected war criminal. The Justice Department decided this less on established legal grounds that the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty than on grounds that Waldheim's position as chief of state overrides other considerations.
The issue is far from dead in the American Jewish community, however, and whatever his official welcome in Washington, Waldheim must reckon with protest demonstrations on any state visit he might pay to the US.
So far, Waldheim has made no gesture of reconciliation to Jews. Instead, he is stressing only the need to close the domestic gap that developed in the bitter campaign -- that is, to rally Austrians to reject what he sees as the grossly unfair charges against him by the WJC.
In the case of Israel, the Waldheim team calculates that the agitation about his past will also subside. Here they reckon with Israel's need for continued cooperation by neutral Austria in providing a way station for Soviet Jews who are allowed to emigrate. The emotional impact of the Holocaust in Israel is so strong, however, that Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir is recalling the Israeli ambassador to Austria for consultations and is urging that a new ambassador not be named when the present one finishes his term this summer.
Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who has attempted throughout the past three months to add a voice of rational calm to the controversy, now proposes that an equitable solution might be for military experts of West Germany, Israel, the US, Greece, and Yugoslavia to examine all documents relating to Waldheim's war service.
In other foreign reaction, Moscow seemed to be hoping to benefit from anti-Jewish feeling in Austria in the wake of the heated presidential campaign. Soviet commentary said the election showed that ``Zionist circles'' had failed in their effort to influence Austrians.
As for the Austrian man in the street, he doesn't comprehend what all the fuss is about. By and large he agrees with Waldheim that the WJC's allegations are ``malicious slander'' against someone who only did his duty -- like hundreds of thousands of other Austrians during the war -- and then served honorably as UN Secretary General in the 1970s.
Certainly all the parties avoided the issue of Austria's past in the five-week runoff campaign after Waldheim narrowly missed a majority in the first presidential vote last month. The conservative Austrian People's Party that backed Waldheim had no wish to stress it. The losing Socialists Party found that the issue only rallied voters to Waldheim -- and they were in no position to throw stones anyway, since the Socialist Party had helped rehabilitate ex-Nazi politicians years before, when it needed coalition partners. And the small Freedom Party, with its own uneasy mix of laissez-faire liberals and Nazi sympathizers, was certainly not interested in stimulating debate about the past.
The defeat in the presidential elections is but one more problem for the Socialists. Issues raised in the campaign which played against the party included pensions; radiation levels in milk after the Chernobyl nuclear accident and protests against German, Czech, and Hungarian nuclear plants; wine adulteration and other scandals; the failure of Austrian industry to keep up with high-tech leaders; and the drop in American tourists following the terrorist scare in the US.
The Socialists have already resigned themselves to being the opposition and will try to rejuvinate the party there.
Political analysts now expect more heads within the Socialist Party to roll. The general election that would normally be held next April may now be moved up -- and neither the Socialists nor any other party is expected to be able to win a majority on its own.