Vienna is stunned by power of populism

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The Independent Online
DESPITE significant gains in three regional elections, Jorg Haider, the populist leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO), yesterday looked set to be thwarted in his attempt to regain the governorship of the southern state of Carinthia.

Spokesmen for Austria's ruling Social Democrats (SPO) and People's Party (OVP), which together command a firm majority in the state, said they would join forces to block Mr Haider. At the same time, they denied suggestions that the FPO leader could achieve an even bigger breakthrough in general elections scheduled for October.

'We are naturally concerned about any swing to Mr Haider, but on this showing he is not about to break the mould of Austrian politics,' said Helmut Wohnout, an OVP spokesman. Less partial observers agreed that although Mr Haider's rise continued, it was no longer meteoric.

The final results of Sunday's polls in Carinthia, Salzburg and the Tyrol indicated gains of 0.5 per cent 4 per cent for the FPO, with crushing losses of 3 per cent 9 per cent for Chancellor Franz Vranitzky's SPO. His coalition partner, the OVP, more or less held its own.

In Carinthia, Austria's poorest state and Mr Haider's power-base, the FPO's anti-immigration 'Austria First' message clearly struck a chord, winning the party a record 33 per cent, only 4 per cent short of the SPO. In the first flush of success, Mr Haider said the voters clearly wanted him to return as governor, a post he held from 1989 to 1991, when he was forced to resign after publicly praising Hitler's employment policies.

In addition to gauging the popular mood ahead of October's general election, Sunday's polls were watched for indications of how Austrians might vote in an expected referendum on joining the European Union. Despite success for the Greens in the Tyrol, the state through which most lorries travelling between Italy and Germany would pass, few observers felt that hard conclusions could be drawn.