Austria for the Austrians

THE appeal of nationalists in Europe continues, as elections Sunday in Austria shows. Jorg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party scored the biggest upset in Austrian politics in two decades, unseating a two-party centrist coalition that had ruled in Vienna for eight years. Mr. Haider is a charismatic 44-year-old leader whose electric rhetoric against immigrants and pro-Nazi-era sentiments got him expelled by his colleagues from Austria's federal assembly in 1991. But now he is back.

Running on a platform that blames foreigners for Austria's problems and opposes Austria's scheduled Jan. 1, 1995, entry into the European Union, the Freedom Party scored nearly 23 percent of the vote (it had 12 percent in 1986). Haider's party does not have enough parliamentary seats to seize power. But it has forced Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky's government to resign and take a caretaker role until a new coalition is formed. Haider says he will be strong enough to take the chancellory in 1998.

Part of the blame for the rise of the rightist politics Haider represents must go to the too-comfortable position of Austria's mainstream parties, which have changed little. Without an overt crisis, but with a stronger nationalist tone in the air after the cold war, the vote for Haider is seen as a vote for something: Austria for the Austrians. Never mind that Freedom Party chiefs don't outline how their antiforeigner programs would actually work in an economy that relies on immigrant labor. The kind of sophisticated, smiling, but sharp-edged TV talk Haider uses leaves many older politicians looking stodgy or ineffectual. Like many of the new nationalists in Europe, Haider plays off a younger generation impatient with the broader liberal values of the postwar years; he also appeals to a nascent fear among the older generation that Austrian traditions are undermined by cosmopolitans and ``Auslander.''

The Haider types make extremism seem reasonable or understandable. This is dangerous. Centrists and chamber of commerce equivalents say there is nothing to be concerned about so long as other parties do well. But no other party is growing so fast.

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