Setback for Austria's far right

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AUSTRIA'S establishment breathed a sigh of relief yesterday at the relatively low level of support for a petition against foreigners, and concluded that most Austrians rejected xenophobic solutions to the country's problems, writes Adrian Bridge.

Political leaders, including Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, said the petition, signed by 417,000 people during last week, was a crushing defeat for its instigator, Jorg Haider, leader of the far-right Freedom Party. Some declared it spelt the beginning of the end for the populist Mr Haider, who had said that less than half-a-million signatures would be a failure. 'In one fell swoop, he has lost his air of invincibilty,' said a conservative People's Party spokesman. 'The rise and rise of Jorg Haider has come to an abrupt end. And he brought it on himself.'

Forthcoming regional elections will show whether this is wishful thinking. Freedom Party officials put on a brave face yesterday, insisting that, despite winning support from less than 10 per cent of the electorate, the petition had been a success.

By collecting more than 100,000 signatures for his 'Austria First' petition, Mr Haider has forced a parliamentary debate over its demands, which include a halt to immigration, identity passes for foreigners seeking work in Austria and curbs on the numbers of non-German-speakers at state schools. But for a moral victory he needed more than the 780,000 votes (16 per cent of the electorate) the Freedom Party gained in the general election of 1990.