Austrian government faces uncertain future

If the recent parliamentary elections here decided anything, it is that Austria's prolonged and agonized period of political indecision could well run on to the end of the year. The disarray caused by the ``hung'' election is already evident as the politicians begin to bargain over their options. Neither of the country's major parties, the Austrian Socialist Party and the Austrian People's Party, emerged from the parliamentary elections last weekend with a decisive majority. Observers here say this suggests the country might easily have to reckon with another election in 1987.

The ``grand coalition'' of the two big parties that have monopolized Austrian politics since the end of World War II is by no means the virtual certainty predicted by almost all the pundits up to election day.

The Socialists had been in power 16 years. The conservative People's Party has been the only other real contender since the war. Both were taken aback by the 50 percent increase in parliamentary representation won by the small but suddenly significant Freedom Party.

With its 18 seats, the Freedom Party is, in fact, now calling the shots. And it is doing so under colors greatly different from those with which it went into coalition with the Socialists 4 years ago. At that time, the party had shed much of an embarrassing past during which it was led by a former officer in a Nazi SS unit. But the party's subsequently-improved image as a quasi-liberal, right-of-center mix did not last long. And during the this election it campaigned under a new, avowedly ultra-right leader.

Youth is seen here as an overdue newcomer to the corridors of power and the Freedom Party's J"org Haider, at 36, has emerged as a flamboyant populist whose boyish good looks and assault on the older political generation attracted many of the 400,000 first-time voters.

The ruling Socialist Party - after several years of economic stagnation and breakdowns in traditionally feather-bedded state-owned industries - did better than expected. It was largely due to the new and younger chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, who took over when the party's fortunes were at their lowest. He also adroitly took up reform ideas already mooted by the other big party.

In the present stalemate, Dr. Vranitzky's options are clear. He could enter into a coalition with the People's Party. But, if they say ``no'' - which they conceivably might do since their leader, Alois Mock, has said he won't play vice-chancellor to a Socialist chancellor - then Vranitzky may decide to try to go it alone. But with 76 seats for the People's Party and another 18 for Mr. Haider, Vranitzky's 80 seats would not last long. He probably could count on support from the environmental Greens, but their nine seats - almost but not quite as much of a coup as that of the Freedom Party - would not be enough.

It is, however, a disappointed Dr. Mock and his People's Party who face the most acute dilemmas. His followers are in a state of confusion, split between some who reject any coalition and those who will join hands with either the Socialist Party or the Freedom Party, if only to return to a share in power and office.

The question is which trend ultimately will prevail. If the option turned to Haider, then many of the moderate conservative supporters of Mock who hoped for the big two-party coalition will be disturbed by the aggressive nationalism with which Haider galvanized his party into a formidable iconoclastic vote-winner.

At the start, the Kurt Waldheim affair threatened to shadow the polls with its fog of doubt about the Austrian President's wartime past with the German armed forces. The party leaders, however, left this potentially counter-productive issue alone.

Chancellor Vranitzky handed in his government's resignation Tuesday, but he will remain in office until a new government is formed. Mr. Waldheim has also already let it be known that he would not favor a minority government should Vranitzky propose it.

Instead he would turn to Austria's second biggest party. But the People's Party would need the Freedom Party. And there, Haider is still the arbiter. He sees himself as the real election winner: in no hurry for coalition with anyone, with a preference for opposition, sitting back with his sights and ambitions already on the next elections.

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