The growing likelihood that Austria's far-right Freedom Party will join the country's next government provoked expressions of alarm across Europe today, with many governments warning that a government role for the party could arouse further opposition to immigration across the continent and to expansion of the European Union.
With the Social Democrats having abandoned hopes of forming a minority government in Vienna, negotiations between Joerg Haider, the populist firebrand who heads the Freedom Party, and Wolfgang Schuessel, leader of the conservative People's Party, gathered momentum. The two parties each control 52 seats in the 183-seat Parliament.
Schuessel--who is the foreign minister in the outgoing coalition and would become chancellor in such a rightist alliance--said he expects to reach agreement with Haider by the end of next week. This would end a 30-year period in which the Social Democrats have either held or shared power.
The rise of the Freedom Party was condemned by world leaders attending an international conference on the Holocaust in Stockholm. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called the prospect of Haider's party entering the Austrian government "a highly disturbing signal" that reflects the steady rise in public support achieved by extreme right-wing movements in Europe. Israel has vowed to withdraw its ambassador to Vienna if the Freedom Party takes part in a governing coalition.
Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who organized the Holocaust conference to promote new education programs aimed at combating the rise of right-wing extremism, said that the disdain toward foreigners and other xenophobic attitudes engendered by the Freedom Party must be suppressed to prevent the spread of ethnic hatreds in Europe.
"The European Union is also a union consisting of values that respect tolerance," Persson said, according to news reports from Stockholm. "The program that is developing in Austria is not in line with those values." France, Germany and Italy expressed apprehension about the impact a far-right party in the Austrian government would have on their own right-wing fringe movements.
Schuessel sought to assuage such anxieties, insisting that he possesses enough "reason and experience" to moderate Haider's opposition to immigration and the planned expansion of the European Union into Eastern Europe, the reports said.
The Freedom Party finished second in Oct. 3 parliamentary elections, winning more than 27 percent of the vote--nearly triple what it won in 1986, when Haider took over as party leader. The Social Democrats finished first but without enough seats to govern on their own. Talks between the Social Democrats and the People's Party on extending their governing partnership broke down Friday.
Haider has attracted particular attention for statements that appeared to be sympathetic to aspects of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Five years ago, he told Austrian war veterans that members of the Waffen SS--the military arm of the Nazi organization--were "decent people of good character." In 1991, he praised Nazi Germany's employment policies.
After last fall's election, Haider apologized for those remarks and said they did not represent his "personal values of tolerance and humanity."
Schuessel said Haider would have to change his party's culture and political style in assuming the responsibilities of government, and he expressed optimism that a fresh approach is worth trying after 13 years of fractious rule by a coalition of Social Democrats and the People's Party.
He said he is confident he can persuade Haider's party to shift its positions, if only because of its eagerness to enter government. "No one should be afraid. I believe I am the guarantor for that," said Schuessel. "I know how to assess risks."