Flirting With The Far Right In Austria

At a time when unions protesting government cutbacks are causing chaos in France, economic insecurity is producing a scarier phenomenon in Austria. Angry voters seem set to give the far-right Freedom Party of Jorg Haider a major lift in the Dec. 17 parliamentary elections. If Haider gets the 25% of the vote predicted by polls, it would be one of the strongest showings for an extreme-right politician in Europe since World War II.

What has opened the way for Haider is the bankruptcy of Austria's version of the European welfare state. This fall a bitter dispute over the bulging budget deficit broke up Austria's decades-old "Grand Coalition" of the leftist Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party. The Social Democratic Chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, wanted to raise taxes, but the People's Party Vice-Chancellor, Wolfgang Schussel, insisted that Austria can no longer allow workers to retire in their 40s and must clean up the rampant abuse of the social safety net.

GROWING FOLLOWING. The split forced parliamentary elections, giving Haider his first shot at power since taking over the then-marginal Freedom Party in 1986. He now has a large and growing following of Nazi sympathizers: workers fearful of losing their jobs--and even young professionals. The latter see Haider, distasteful as he may be, as the only hope to break the political gridlock in Vienna.

Haider has recently toned down his rhetoric to broaden his appeal. But the glib, good-looking 45-year-old has traditionally pandered to right-wingers. Indeed, in 1991 his praise of Nazi job programs created such an uproar he was forced to resign the governorship of his home state of Corinthia. He is short on concrete policy proposals, but plays masterfully to voters' fears and prejudices. During the 1994 campaign, he attacked immigrants for displacing Austrian workers and freeloading on generous social programs. This year he has targeted "wasteful" public spending, such as funding for the arts.

Many Austrians dread giving Haider real power. "I would not trust him to respect democratic procedures," says Georg M. Busch, a senior economist at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research. Haider brushes off such fears. "We are a reform group in Austria, but we are no extremist organization," he says. Haider's best hope for a quick role in government is to work out a power-sharing arrangement with the conservative Schussel after the elections. The Vice-Chancellor, who forced the budget impasse, is no Haider fan, but vows he'll consider an alliance with Haider if he can't patch up relations with the Socialists after the vote. Both men agree on the need for big cuts in the deficit.

Still, there's a good chance Schussel and Vranitzky will find a way to patch things up--if only to keep Haider out in the cold. But Haider won't go away. Indeed, his growing popularity, especially among the young, is credited with forcing Schussel to push for reform.

But any coalition that includes the Social Democrats won't be able to cut bloated social programs very much. Further foot-dragging will only play to Haider's strength. "People see that this government is not able to find a solution for [Austria's] economic problems," he says.

If that is true, the implications for Austria and Europe are frightening. Are European governments so paralyzed and discredited that the appeal of extremists may be greatly enhanced? The emergence of Haider as well as the strength of former communists in eastern Germany--not to mention Poland and Hungary--are certainly eye-openers. With the European welfare state just beginning to crack, the political fallout may also be just starting.

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