An Austrian-style Watergate

Amid political-espionage scandal, Jorg Haider's far-right party will hold a special session tomorrow.

Jorg Haider, the far-right firebrand whose party's inclusion in government sparked diplomatic sanctions against Austria earlier this year, is facing the deepest crisis of his career.

Trouble is brewing on three fronts: Allegations that his Freedom Party paid police informants for secret files on political opponents have led to a widening investigation of top party functionaries, including Mr. Haider himself. In a stinging regional vote in October, the party endured its worst electoral setback since 1986. And earlier this month, an exhausted infrastructure minister became the third of six Freedom Party Cabinet members to resign, claiming his "batteries were empty."

Is Haider's Freedom Party running out of energy?

At the height of its influence, the party in February formed a coalition government with the conservative People's Party, after capturing more than a fourth of the vote in national elections. In response, Austria's 14 partners in the European Union froze diplomatic contact with Vienna. The United States imposed a policy of selective engagement, talking to Austrian officials only when it was in Washington's interest.

As normalization of relations was being discussed, allegations arose toward summer's end that the Freedom Party had systematically spied on its opponents by procuring confidential police files.

The affair is being called "Austria's Watergate." But it has not stopped Haider from going on a counteroffensive that is holding the country in suspense.

Last week the politician, who is known for singing the praises of Austria's Nazi period, said he would support new elections, raising speculation that he might attempt to bring down the government by pulling his party out of the ruling coalition. He gave political observers another jolt by calling a special party congress, set for tomorrow in Carinthia, the Freedom Party stronghold where he is governor.

Haider told the weekly News that "everything is open" and that "special circumstances require special reactions." The magazine interpreted this to mean that Haider, who ostensibly withdrew from the national political stage in May, would use the congress to launch a "march on Vienna" - a first step toward his ultimate goal of the chancellorship. On a talk show Sunday, however, Haider seemed to backtrack, saying he plans to remain in Carinthia, but adding that he sees himself as "the cement" holding the coalition together.

"There could be a surprise," says University of Innsbruck political scientist Anton Pelinka, referring to the Freedom Party meeting. "But we would only be playing his game if we speculated."

Mr. Pelinka says Haider is using the element of uncertainty to divert attention from the Freedom Party's other troubles. While Haider is no longer officially its head, there is little doubt in Vienna that he still controls the party from his regional base in Carinthia.

Haider's political obituary has been written on numerous occasions in the past. But the masterful populist has learned to turn apparent defeats into victories. "I've always warned against underestimating him," says Armin Thurnher, editor of the Vienna city weekly Falter. "He's already been at the end, only to resurrect himself in the shortest time. I believe Haider won't be finished for a long time."

As allegations in the so-called "spy affair" hardened, Haider lashed out that it was the product of "the sick minds of a few journalists" and claimed that he was "the most spied-on politician in Austria." Another Freedom Party functionary accused investigators of using methods reminiscent of the Gestapo.

The scandal surrounding the Freedom Party was sparked by allegations made by Josef Kleindienst, once a member of Haider's inner circle and a former policeman. In October Mr. Kleindienst published a book entitled "I Confess," in which he describes how the Freedom Party used sympathizers in the police force to buy potentially damaging information on political opponents.

Prosecutors have launched investigations against Haider and several other senior party members, including Justice Minister Dieter Bohmdorfer. In an otherwise generally positive report on Austria that paved the way for the EU countries' normalization of relations, the justice minister was singled out for a lack of impartiality.

Though the wisdom of the now-removed sanctions was heavily disputed both here and abroad, political scientist Pelinka says that they "had a very strong impact on Austria, because the EU made clear that despite their lifting, the Freedom Party is not considered a mainstream European party."

To show that the country is not extremist, Vienna finally made plans to compensate those who had labored as slaves in Nazi Austria and address other tough issues.

EU countries lifted sanctions on Vienna in September, and the US normalized relations last week. Still, Pelinka says the EU now needs to adopt a clear procedure for dealing with extremist parties.

Even without the "spy affair," the Freedom Party is facing obstacles: two tough regional elections in the coming months, and a divisive budget vote in parliament that could split the fragile coalition with the People's Party once and for all.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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