Leading Article: Austria's worrisome drift to the right

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THE SUCCESS of Jorg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in Sunday's general election in Austria is worrying. There will be no immediate impact, since the country's long-ruling grand coalition of conservatives and socialists did well enough to return to power. But the collective vote of the two main parties was down from 75 per cent in 1990 to 63 per cent. Former supporters of both switched to Mr Haider's Freedom Party, giving it just under 23 per cent.

When Mr Haider took over its leadership in 1986, it had only 5 per cent of the vote. If he succeeds in sustaining the party's growth, there is every likelihood that the Freedom Party will be in government after the next election. That would become a virtual certainty if the conservative People's Party were to revise its attitude to Mr Haider, as is possible; or if a discontented section of it were to support him.

Mr Haider is no primitive neo-fascist along the lines of France's Jean-Marie Le Pen or Germany's Franz Schonhuber, until recently leader of the fast-shrinking Republican Party. He is not only much more personable but a subtler and more deftly opportunistic operator. His strongest suit has been discontent with the cosy system of patronage practiced by the socialists and conservatives, under which key jobs were shared out between their respective supporters without much regard for their competence. In a country that senses the need for change, his criticisms have struck a chord.

For all that, his populist rhetoric remains crude, and he continues to appeal to Austrian xenophobia, long sustained by a heavy influx of refugees from Eastern Europe. As leader of the No faction during the June referendum on joining the European Union, he played on fears of Mediterranean workers seizing jobs from good Austrians.

In short, Mr Haider remains an alarmingly loose cannon. His popularity is reminder that, unlike Germany, the Austrians never properly came to terms with their complicity in Nazi war crimes. In Germany, a party leader who suggested - as Mr Haider did - combining the post of president and chancellor, along the Hitler model, would deal his reputation a fatal blow. Fortunately, the Austrians rejected Mr Haider's vision in voting heavily to join the EU on 1 January. It is to be hoped that membership will reinforce that view of the world within Austria, rather than Mr Haider's.