THE World Jewish Congress launched a propaganda campaign against Kurt Waldheim on March 4 of this year. Ever since then the subject of the former Secretary-General of the United Nations and now President-elect of the Republic of Austria has been much in the news and briskly debated. At the time of the original set of charges against Dr. Waldheim, he was running second in the presidential race in Austria. The leading candidate was Kurt Steyrer, former minister of health in the Socialist government that had been running Austria for 16 years.
The Economist magazine did a poll in Austria on March 15. It showed Waldheim suddenly in the lead, with a rating of 47 percent of the vote against 34 percent for Mr. Steyrer. It also showed that 87 percent of Austrians believed that the allegations about Waldheim's past were ``an attempt to block his election.''
In the first round May 5 in a two-round election, Waldheim scored 49.6 percent. Steyrer got 43.7. In the runoff election last Sunday, Waldheim won handily, at 53.9 percent. Steyrer finished at 46.1 percent.
Therefore, the net effect in Austrian politics of the World Jewish Congress campaign against Waldheim was to turn a weak and possibly losing candidate into a strong winning candidate.
The World Jewish Congress attack on Waldheim made Kurt Waldheim a decisive winner.
There are other pluses and minuses.
Waldheim himself is now assured of six years of pampered life in the huge and splendid palace of the Hapsburg emperors in Vienna. Austrian law allows a second six-year term. He has a reasonable chance of life in the Hofburg for 12 years -- replete with chauffeured limousines and all that -- for which he acquired a taste while Secretary-General of the United Nations.
The work is incidental. The political power in Austria is in the hands of a chancellor. The president is a ceremonial figurehead. For Kurt Waldheim the prospect is for much elegant living, with minimum work.
There is a minus side for him. If and when he travels outside Austria, he may in some places meet hostile demonstrators and demonstrations.
The job requires little such travel, however. And heads of state can usually manage to avoid unfriendly crowds when they travel from palace to palace. It is not true that Waldheim will be barred from the United States. If he comes as a head of state he will be admitted and received, albeit with perhaps some reluctance.
Will Austria suffer from having elected as president a person who is under attack from the World Jewish Congress? Its reputation as a nice little companion to Switzerland with a welcome to all peoples is tarnished.
It is possible that there will be some slight loss of tourist trade, but Austria was never popular with Jewish tourists. It has been known to be emotionally anti-Semitic from the Middle Ages.
The small residual Jewish population in Austria is unhappy about the campaign against Waldheim and expects to find life less pleasant for a time. Their leaders protested to the World Jewish Congress against the campaign.
The Austrian position among the great powers is adjusted slightly. When Waldheim first ran for the top job at the UN, he was supported by the Soviet Union and opposed by the United States. This week the Soviet Union congratulated him on his election and Tass, the official Soviet news agency, printed a commentary the day after the election which asserted that ``the US administration and Zionist circles resorted to a flagrant interference in the preelection struggle and launched a campaign of personal hostile attacks on Waldheim.''
If President Waldheim will be coolly received, if at all, in Washington, he will be greeted warmly in Moscow and other East-bloc countries. His election tends to make Austria more than it already was, a neutral place in the East-West equation.
As for the merits of the case against Waldheim: He has been accused of association with war crimes. He served with a German military outfit that committed war crimes. But the evidence against him was never deemed sufficient to justify bringing him to trial. He was never put on trial for war crimes and never convicted of war crimes.