Popular Far-Right Party Dogs Austria's Leader


Austria's new chancellor, Viktor Klima, is off to a brisk start in his first full week in office. With lots of energy and one of the toothiest grins in politics since Jimmy Carter, he has such an immense eagerness to be all things to all people that he's been called "Viktor Clinton."

But it's not clear that the coalition he now heads is up to the challenge of overhauling the Austrian welfare state to prepare it for the 21st century - or that such an overhaul can be achieved without driving even more voters to the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) headed by Jorg Haider.

What's needed, observers suggest, is deep and thorough reform, including real debate on public issues, rather than back-room deals at party headquarters.

Mr. Klima takes over from Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, who with nearly 11 years in office has been one of the longest-serving leaders in Europe. Both belong to the Social Democratic party (SPO). The latest polls have shown the SPO gaining in approval, and the far-right FPO slipping.

Both Klima and Mr. Vranitzky are "pinstriped socialists," a type often seen in Europe nowadays. These are social democrats, often with business experience, who preach fiscal discipline - and then, because of their leftist backgrounds, can get their left-wing members to accept it.

Klima is seen as having more of the common touch. He has done better than Vranitzky in one-on-one encounters with Mr. Haider. Haider is widely seen outside Austria as one of the scariest men in Europe. But he is acknowledged even by his fiercest critics at home as "the most gifted politician we now have."

Klima is aware that the gains of Haider's FPO in recent years have come largely at the expense of his own SPO. If the SPO wins voters back, it may be because Klima has demonstrated the ability to build coalitions and define common interests, observers say.

Or he may succeed by co-opting some of the populist and xenophobic policies of the FPO. The SPO is widely charged with playing on the xenophobia of Austrians afraid of being overwhelmed by immigrants from the east. "The [SPO] head of the labor federation has called for a return of guest workers to their countries of origin," says Herbert Scheibner, an FPO member of parliament. "We have an essentially more reasonable and more liberal position on foreigners than many in the ruling parties."

Josef Haslinger, a novelist and political analyst, suggests that because the natural bases of the SPO and the FPO are so similar, it is "quite possible" that the two could move closer together.

The SPO and its conservative coalition partner, the People's Party (OVP), are the two "established churches" of Austrian politics. For over a decade they have been bound together by a series of grand coalitions intended to keep the FPO out of government.

But the "heretics" are gaining. The suggestion of "Haider as chancellor by 1998" gets repeated across Austria - sometimes with enthusiasm, more often with a shudder, often with an air of inevitability. Haider's FPO took 28 percent of the vote in the last election, the highest share a far-right party has won in Europe.

When Austrians say that Haider speaks for "the little people," the ones "shut out from society," they mean something quite specific: The FPO, unlike the SPO and the OVP, has no role in the Austrian system of "Proporz," which governs the country's economic and political life. Proporz is classic machine politics writ very, very large. Schools, banks, and businesses tend to be affiliated with one or the other of the two big parties. To succeed in any of these organizations, one has needed a party membership card.

This cosy system has not helped Austria develop new political ideas in open debate. Now, as political leaders begin to see that the state must deregulate the economy, "there's a great lack of ideas," Dr. Haslinger says.

"The Social Democrats have been in government for over 25 years, and still there has been no comprehensive review of the pension system, for instance, no blue-ribbon commission, no discussion whether we can afford to keep paying retired civil servants 100 percent of their last salary."

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