Austria poll a trimph for man who praised Hitler

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The rise and rise of Austria's far right leader Jorg Haider appeared to have been convincingly confirmed last night with computer projections showing sweeping gains for his Freedom Party in elections to the European Parliament and the Vienna city council.

Projections from the European vote gave the Freedom Party 28 per cent, a sharp increase on its 22 per cent showing in last year's general election, putting it only just behind Austria's two dominant parties, the Social Democrats and conservative People's Party, on 29.3 and 29.5 per cent respectively.

The result represented a personal triumph for Mr Haider, a man who once praised Hitler's employment policies and who only last year commended the "decency" of Waffen SS veterans. It represented the worst showing ever for Chancellor Franz Vranitzky's Social Democrats, who appeared poised to lose their absolute majority in the Vienna council for the first time since 1945.

Mr Haider's success in the European parliament vote came on the back of the widespread disillusionment felt by many Austrians since their country joined the European Union last year.

Blaming Brussels for the loss of thousands of jobs, Mr Haider promised that he would try to negotiate a net reduction in Austria's contributions to EU coffers. He also promised a referendum on whether to join a single European currency, a move he personally opposes.

"This great result is an historic step for us," Mr Haider said. "We've won a lot of support from critics in the population who simply don't agree with the way European integration is progressing."

In an attempt to meet the convergence criteria for the single currency, Chancellor Vranitzky's government earlier this year passed a deeply unpopular cost-cutting austerity budget. But discontent with his government, and the cosy two-party duopoly on power enjoyed by the Social Democrats and People's Party since the war, runs much deeper.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his flirtations with far-right and even Nazi ideologies, the xenophobic Mr Haider has attracted ever more followers since taking over as leader of the Freedom Party 10 years ago. At the time, support for the party stood at 5 per cent. Now it is the most successful far-right nationalist party in Europe.

Although the two big parties can still team up to exclude Mr Haider from power, his declared aim to break the mould of Austrian politics and to become Chancellor by 1998 looks ever more attainable. As he himself crowed last night: "If the government doesn't change its policies it will meet its Waterloo at the next election."