Far right breaks grip of Red Vienna's rulers

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Vienna - After more than 50 years of unchallenged rule, Austria's Social Democrats are on the brink of losing absolute power in the city referred to for decades as "Red Vienna". Polls suggest the party could slump to a humiliating 40 per cent in tomorrow's council elections, and may have to woo potential coalition partners.

The main beneficiary is likely to be Jorg Haider, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, who has fanned the flames of xenophobia in a city which has witnessed a sharp rise in immigration from Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia.

Founded in 1889, the Austrian Social Democrats (formerly Socialists) came to power in Vienna in 1920 after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy. They held it until 1934, when they were banned by the fascist regime.

"'Red Vienna' became a model for social democrats everywhere," Professor Gerhard Jagschitz at the city's Institute for Contemporary History said. "The term stood for everything that was modern, moral and progressive."

When the Social Democrats returned to power in Vienna in 1945, they vowed to continue in the same vein, initiating scores of new building programmes and job creation schemes. Today more than 25 per cent of the city's housing is in public hands, the highest proportion of any west European capital, and hundreds of thousands of Viennese are employed, either directly of indirectly, by the city government.

The years of Social Democrat rule have coincided with an unparalleled rise in prosperity. But Mr Haider, who once praised Hitler's employment policies, says that "red monopoly rule" has simply bred corruption.

He is likely to win 25 per cent of the vote in the council poll and in the vote for the European Parliament which is also being held tomorrow - not enough to bring him to power, but a reminder of his continually rising popularity and the threat he represents to the established order.