Austria was plunged into political uncertainty today by final results from last week's national election that showed the nationalist, anti-immigrant Freedom Party in a virtual dead heat for second place.
The election outcome, the most dramatic in Austria since World War II, could secure a place in the next government for the far-right grouping led by Joerg Haider.
According the the final count, Chancellor Viktor Klima's Social Democrats won 65 seats in the next parliament, despite their worst showing in a half-century. Haider's Freedom Party will hold 52 seats and the conservative People's Party will also get 52 seats.
This political arithmetic portends tortuous negotiations to form a new government and some analysts believe another election within six months is inevitable. While Klima wants to sustain a 13-year-old coalition between his Social Democrats and the People's Party, the apparent dissatisfaction shown by voters toward the outgoing government could push the country in a new direction.
The balance of power is clearly held by the People's Party, led by Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel. His options include sticking with the Social Democrats to form a new government, going into opposition, or breaking a traditional taboo and inviting the Freedom Party to become a partner in a new governing coalition.
After a party meeting this evening, Schuessel declared that his group would go into opposition, news services reported.
"We will not take part in talks to form a new government," he said, according to Reuters. Asked whether he would reconsider if the country remained without a government for several months, Schuessel responded, "We are not going into government."
While Haider's praise for Adolf Hitler's employment policies and the character of Waffen SS veterans has earned him enmity abroad, he is regarded by Austrian supporters as a plucky populist who rails against the corruption of mainstream politicians and seeks to protect cherished traditions from being diluted by an invasion of immigrants.
Haider has seized upon his party's success as a repudiation of the traditional parties and a mandate to reform the cozy political system that has kept the Social Democrats and People's Party sharing power for nearly all of the postwar era. "Voters have quite clearly voted the red-black coalition out of office," Haider said, referring to the parties' traditional colors.
President Thomas Klestil, who is responsible for picking the leader to form the next government, said it is "difficult to interpret" what kind of government Austrian voters want.
Klima has ruled out forming a government with Haider, but the People's Party seems inclined to consider him as a plausible partner. The last few years have featured constant bickering between the Social Democrats and the People's Party over economic and security policies, and their quarrels undoubtedly contributed to their diminished standing with the voters.
While Haider's antagonism toward the European Union could be a source of friction, the People's Party shares his conviction that Austria needs to sell state industries, cut taxes and develop a more dynamic private sector. Both parties also want to bring Austria into NATO, while the Social Democrats insist on maintaining the country's traditional neutrality.
David Levy, the Israeli foreign minister, declared today that his country would sever diplomatic relations with Austria if the Freedom Party joins the next government.
CAPTION: Wolfgang Schuessel, leader of conservative People's Party, faces a decision: continue in governing coalition, form opposition or invite Freedom Party to join government.
CAPTION: Joerg Haider may join new Austrian government based on electoral showing of his far-right Freedom Party.