A Far-Right Populist Pounds at Austria's Gates

Jrg Haider - 'Hitler's grandson' to critics, 'savior of the working class' to supporters - rises fast in the polls.

From the point of view of personal pedigree, Jrg Haider fits the bill perfectly as leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party. His father volunteered to be a Nazi stormtrooper, his mother was a member of the Nazi League of German Maidens, and his multimillion-dollar fortune is based on an estate confiscated from a Jewish family under Adolf Hitler's rule.

But Mr. Haider has not led his party from a 4 percent rating in the polls 10 years ago to 28 percent today just by being "Hitler's grandson," as his critics brand him. He is hammering on the gates of Austria's hidebound political system at the head of an angry army of blue-collar workers who fear they might lose their jobs, resent government corruption, and worry what economic globalization will do to their lives.

The Freedom Party "combines traditional right-wing politics - and in Austria that includes Nazi sentiment - with a protest movement against the elitism of Austrian politics, a protest by the losers in the modernization process," says Anton Pelinka, a political analyst at Innsbruck University. "It is a catch-all party. But its most significant uniting element is xenophobia."

In the small market town of Horn one recent afternoon, as Freedom Party candidate Bernhard Gratzer campaigned in the cobblestoned main square for local elections, he made antipathy toward foreigners, and a halt to immigration, his central message. "We've got the illegals coming in from the south, and the criminals coming in from the east," Mr. Gratzer told the crowd. "We say a clear 'No.' We don't need any more of them."

Horn is just 20 miles from the Czech border, and since the Iron Curtain opened, Eastern Europeans have poured into Austria - legally and illegally - in search of work. Their presence has shaken the conservative Austrians, and Gratzer's speech was well received.

"Border security and expanding the European Union to the East - those are my two biggest worries," says Walter Zobinger, a retired salesman in the audience who said he planned to vote for Gratzer. "A lot of Czechs and Poles come across to steal cars, and there have been a lot of break-ins where I live."

The farmers making up the crowd in Horn were mostly worried that cheap agricultural imports from Eastern Europe would force their produce prices down. In Vienna and other cities, industrial workers are concerned that cheap labor from Eastern Europe will force their wages down, or even cost them their jobs. The 4.4 percent unemployment rate is low by European standards, but unusually high for Austria.

A dynamic new voice

Understanding those worries, and giving them voice, is Haider's great talent. Youthful and dynamic - he enjoys rock climbing and once ran the New York marathon - he communicates easily with voters, often relaxing into local dialect and making crowds laugh.

In Horn recently to support Gratzer's candidacy, Haider hit another of the hot buttons that move an increasing number of Austrians - the privileges politicians have granted themselves and supporters under the country's proporz system.

Since World War II, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists - currently allied in a "grand coalition" government - have divided the spoils of power in a cozy tradition of mutual back-scratching. Anybody wanting a job in Austria's public sector, for example, has to be a card-carrying member of one of the two main parties. But this arrangement, designed to ensure consensus as Austria rebuilt itself politically after the war, has outlived its usefulness in many people's eyes. And as it breaks down, the Freedom Party is clambering over the rubble.

"We are a big danger to the system," says Susanne Riess-Passer, Haider's deputy. "And a basis of our success is that we have talked openly about how everything the state owns is divided up between the reds and the blacks," as the Socialists and Christian Democrats are known.

That criticism angers both main parties, but the Socialists particularly are piqued by Haider's recent bid to launch his own trade union.

"Haider comes from a party on the far right, and has positioned himself as a great savior of the working class," says Melanie Sully, author of a recent book on Haider. "He has become a radical populist."

New brand of nationalism

That, of course, was the same strategy that the Nazis followed. But the young blue-collar workers the Freedom Party is appealing to are by no means Nazis, and Haider has transformed the pan-Germanic rhetoric that colored his speeches 10 years ago into a new brand of nationalism.

Much closer to most voters' hearts, however, is the question of jobs. And over the past few years unemployment, racism, and the Freedom Party vote have marched side by side in a seemingly inexorable advance.

Indeed, Haider's exploitation of people's fear of foreigners has been so successful that the two big parties have jumped on his bandwagon.

Immigration controls are much stricter today than they were five years ago, and when somebody raised the suggestion that foreigners should be allowed to live in rent-controlled public housing projects, it was the Socialist Party that quashed the idea.

"Haider has shifted the agenda to the right, and even though the established parties criticize him, they have taken over his policies," says Dr. Sully.

In the last nationwide elections - to the European parliament in October 1996 - the Freedom Party scored nearly 28 percent, only a hair's breadth behind the traditional parties. The next 18 months, observers here say, will be make or break for the party after 10 years of steady growth.

At parliamentary elections due next year, Haider's hope is for a good enough score to make it impossible for the two established parties to keep him out, and to tempt one of them to ally with him, instead of with each other.

This is not a prospect that sits well with Austria's neighbors. Haider may not be a post-modern fascist after all. But he is hardly the new face that Europe wants to put on for the new millennium.

* This series continues Thursday with a story on Europe's attempt to stop "cyber-Nazis" who use the World Wide Web to spread hate propaganda.

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