THE AUSTRIAN elections are being received as the biggest breakthrough by a far-right political party in Western Europe since World War II. The man responsible, Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, now claims a role in governing. The other two main parties, to keep him out, will have to heal their tensions. If they don't, Mr. Haider will gain a new forum for his nationalistic and xenophobic views -- and for his further criticism of the other parties for their cronyism and corruption.

It is a bit strange that Austria supports a protest party that tends to remind many Austrians, and many Europeans, of the country's dark Nazi-era past. The party exploits immigrants -- who do the necessary dirty jobs -- for their real and imagined contributions to social disorder. But Austria is far from being the sort of desperate place one associates with ripeness for right-wing excesses. It is among Europe's richest countries, with low unemployment and inflation and an impressive social safety net. Yet there is plainly a popular current sympathetic to the shrewd Mr. Haider's efforts to play on the echoes of the past. Immigrants represent to him a threatening other. In a like spirit he makes nationalistic hay out of Austria's misgivings about its membership in the European Union.

It is always embarrassing to a democratic country to have a substantial share of its electorate vote for nasty political ideas. It puts a burden on the other political parties to contain the damage to Austria's standing and stability. A greater burden, however, falls directly on Joerg Haider himself. As a lesser politician he could perhaps avoid responsibility for Austria's national image. But as a figure with the audience that attends a rising star, he has another responsibility. He must become more aware of how words and policies intended to comfort aggrieved sectors of society sound and play out on the larger stage. Right-wing politics almost everywhere have a tendency to harden around an ideological extreme. It is not foolish to expect Mr. Haider to moderate his approach and respect the mainstream.