It would be hard to imagine two more tranquil bywords for European political stability than Switzerland and Austria.
So why are about a quarter of their voters turning to extreme right-wing leaders, some of whom flavor their rhetoric with a whiff of Nazism?
Try "stability" for an answer. In Austria, where Jrg Haider's Freedom Party came in second with 27 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections earlier this month, a Social Democrat has occupied the chancellor's office since 1971. In Switzerland, where voters are expected to boost the Swiss People's Party to similar heights on Sunday, the same four parties have formed the same coalition governments according to the same formula since 1959.
That, political observers suggest, looks to many voters more like stagnation than stability.
In Austria, "there is a feeling of staleness, of corruption, of 'jobs for the boys' after decades of coalition rule by the two traditional parties," says Melanie Sully, who has written a book on Mr. Haider's rise to prominence.
"Far-right parties do well when competitive elections don't appear to give people a real voice, when it doesn't matter how you vote, you get the same government," says Peter Pulzer, a political science professor at Oxford University in England.
At the same time, both Austria's Freedom Party and the Swiss People's Party share one of the mainstays of the European extreme right: a xenophobic nationalism that sometimes spills over into outright racism. Haider used the same slogan in his campaign - "stop asylum abuse" - that Christoph Blocher, his Swiss counterpart, is using across the border to appeal to voters who feel that there are too many foreigners in their country.
Haider, however, went further. In other posters his party called for an end to berfremdung - literally "swamping by foreigners" - a word that has clear Nazi connotations because of the way Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels used it. Austria was annexed by Germany during World War II.
The People's Party, on the other hand, with none of the Nazi baggage that an Austrian far-right party inevitably carries, is more an ultraconservative, rural party, keen to keep neutral Switzerland out of the European Union, "and maintain the country as the island of the blessed," in the words of Anton Pelinka, a political analyst at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
"There are parties of the far right, and then there are parties of the far right" in Europe, says Professor Pulzer, ranging from straightforwardly neo-Nazi organizations in eastern Germany to tamer groups such as the People's Party.
Nor is there any clear trend across the Continent by which to measure extreme right-wing parties' progress. While they are on the rise in Austria and Switzerland, they are on the retreat elsewhere in Europe.
"This is a demand-led phenomenon," argues Pulzer. "When discontent with the system is high, these parties will get more votes."
This appears to be the case in France, where improving unemployment figures and a generally brightening mood in the country over the past 18 months have taken some of the wind out of the National Front's sails. At last June's European Parliament elections, Jean-Marie Le Pen's party, which had regularly won about 15 percent of votes, fell to 5 percent.
That was also a result of a split in the party that divided far-right votes. But in Germany too, the fears sparked by a 12 percent showing in regional elections in eastern Germany last year by the neofascist German People's Union have not been borne out. At only two of the seven local elections held this year has the party been able to scrape even the 5 percent of the vote needed to elect a representative.
"There is still a reluctance to vote for that sort of party," says Deidre Berger, head of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Congress, which monitors extreme right-wing movements in Germany. "But it is alarming that a consistent 15 to 20 percent of young men in eastern Germany vote for extreme right-wing parties."
Their concerns, says Ms. Berger, are for their futures and for their jobs, rather than foreigners, who make up only 2 percent of eastern Germany's population.
In Switzerland and Austria, however, foreigners are a key focus of the right-wing parties' campaigns: In Vienna, Haider played hard on fears of poor eastern Europeans flooding into Austria if the EU admits new members. And in Switzerland, Mr. Blocher is expected to win votes from citizens unhappy with the large and visible Albanian and Kosovar refugee population, and with the numbers of immigrant workers from the former Yugoslavia.
The two men's success "certainly has something to do with the feeling that it is time for a change," says Dr. Pelinka. "But it has something to do with substance as well, with xenophobic resentment."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society