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  Austria Far-Right Party Makes Gains

By Roland Prinz
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, Oct. 3, 1999; 7:31 p.m. EDT

VIENNA, Austria –– For the first time in postwar Austria, nationalist Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party appeared Sunday to have won second place in parliamentary elections, positioning him for negotiations on participating in the next government.

According to Sunday's results, Haider won 27.2 percent of the vote, a stunning increase of more than 5 percentage points from the last election. That's the Freedom Party's best showing since its founding in 1945.

The people have "given us a chance for which we have competed," said an elated Haider, 51, meaning a chance to be part of the next governing coalition. But he hastened to say it wouldn't be a tragedy if the party wound up in the opposition.

The big loser was Chancellor Viktor Klima's Social Democratic Party, which gave up 4.7 percentage points for 33.4 percent of the vote. But Klima ruled out resigning, saying as leader of the still strongest party he would try to form the next government.

Visibly downcast, Klima said that the defeat at the polls was "a warning of the voters, and we must take this very seriously." He said he was "personally disappointed," but added that "in hard times one does not leave the party in the lurch and also not the country."

If the results are confirmed later this week – 200,000 absentee ballots must still be counted – the Social Democrats will hold 65 seats in the 183-member parliament, a loss of six. Haider's Freedom Party will gain 12 seats to take 53.

A lawyer by training, Haider has been gaining ground over the years because he has managed to address people's grievances in his powerful and often strident speeches. Some voters are concerned about the security of their jobs if and when the European Union expands eastward. He is also telegenic and – for many – radiates charisma.

Austria is one of Europe's most prosperous nations. The crime rate is low, and there has been no social or ethnic strife since the end of World War II.

Still, Austrians clearly perceive the need for change. Much of Haider's popularity is fueled by opposition to the high taxes and policies of the two ruling parties that have alienated many wage earners. He has lambasted the "fat paychecks" of government officials and stifling bureaucracy in public institutions.

Haider's success likely will be frowned upon abroad, however. He is best known for having praised Adolf Hitler's employment policies in the past and for having called veterans of the Nazi Waffen SS "men of character."

Speaking on Israel TV Sunday, Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin called Haider's triumph "terrible, it is frightening ... the world has not learned from its history."

His party's campaign has been dominated by calls for a halt to the influx of foreigners. Haider has also promised generous child care checks and a series of other benefits that most other parties say cannot be financed.

The conservative Austrian People's Party of Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel dropped to third place overall, with 26.9 percent of the vote. However, that decline was far less dramatic than most public opinion surveys had predicted.

While Schuessel said he would honor his pre-election pledge to go into opposition if his party finishes third, he said he was confident that the definitive final result would keep his party in second place overall – and in the government.

"I still believe we can do it," he said of hopes of finishing overall second. His party was only 14,000 votes behind the Freedom Party, which could be made up in absentee ballots.

The Greens gained 2.3 percent for a total of 7.1 percent.

The People's Party took 52 seats, while the Greens took 13 seats, according to preliminary results.

The Liberal Forum – led by Heide Schmidt, a former Freedom Party member who broke with Haider over his rightist course – failed to clear the four-percent hurdle, dropping out of the parliament, with 3.4 percent.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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