14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Setting fascism freeBy Sameh Naguib
The results of last week's general elections in Austria have sent shock waves throughout Europe and, indeed, the world. Virtually one in three Austrians voted for the Freedom Party (FP), a far-right anti-immigration movement with a substantial core of Nazi sympathisers, among them charismatic leader Jorg Haider. Many FP voters were defecting Social Democrats, who suffered their worst-ever result, or disillusioned conservatives, whose party found themselves rudely turned out of second place, a position they have held since 1945.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP), the country's dominant political force for decades, came first with just over 33 per cent of the vote, while the FP pushed the conservative People's Party (PP) to third place for the first time in its history.
The FP's poll surge is the best result for any European far-right party since 1945. The SDP responded immediately by ruling out a coalition with Haider's party, while the conservatives have threatened to pull out of their coalition with the social democrats. In the context of so much turmoil, several ominous outcomes must now be considered possible -- amongst them, a People's Party-Freedom Party coalition, with Haider as chancellor.
Victor Klima, the SDP chancellor, has asked the conservatives to continue as coalition partners. His second choice would be to form a minority government, but that would only lead to instability, and would probably result in new elections within months. If Klima fails to put forward a workable proposition, the president of Austria might have to ask Jorg Haider to form a government. But who is Haider?
Born in Upper Austria to a father who was himself a member of the Hitler Youth, Haider trained as a lawyer. He joined the FP in 1970 and has led the party since 1986, shifting its policies slowly but surely ever further to the right.
He has praised Hitler's notorious black-uniformed Waffen SS troops as "men of character", and has refused to distance himself from those extreme elements within the FP who do not disguise their Nazi sympathies.
In December 1995, Haider was filmed addressing a gathering of former Nazis and younger neo-Nazis. On that occasion, he uttered the following memorable words: "A people that does not honour earlier generations is a people condemned to ruin. We shall prove that we are not to be wiped out -- that we are morally superior to other people."
Haider was forced to resign as governor of his home state of Carinthia in 1991, after praising Hitler's employment policies. However, the tide would now appear to have turned in his favour, and his party has been on a roll ever since he was re-elected governor of Carinthia last April.
Throughout the election campaign, Haider stood out vividly, both in terms of appearance and health, when compared with the leaders of the two other parties. At 49, he is athletic in build, sports a permanent tan, and evidently places great importance on personal strength and vitality (an old Nazi theme). In all this, he could hardly be more different from the chain-smoking Social Democratic chancellor, who at one point had to be taken to hospital with pneumonia, or his finance minister, Rudolf Edlinger, who collapsed with circulatory problems after a television debate with the FP leader.
Meanwhile, Freedom Party election posters across Vienna warned of "Uberfremdung" -- a word used by the Nazis in their crusade for a pure Aryan state. The German term means, literally, "overpopulation by foreigners". It was first used by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister.
The Freedom Party wants to stop all foreigners entering Austria, with the exception of journalists, artists, business people and leading sports personalities. Some of Haider's more extreme proposals include the immediate deportation of foreigners who have broken the law, and the segregation of foreign schoolchildren from Austrians. The FP leader claims that such policies would not be racist, but would simply put the "true Austrians" first.
His political "philosophy", if one can use such a term, is not merely xenophobic, but also deeply anti-democratic. Thus, he has promised not to sanction media organisations that "tell lies", and plans to abolish all subsidies for the arts.
It may seem peculiar that such an extreme right-wing party could flourish in a country which has witnessed so much economic prosperity and stability over the last decade. Austria is now the seventh-richest industrial country, with unemployment running at less than five per cent and inflation almost zero.
Yet Haider's openly anti-immigrant and xenophobic platform has won him mass support, despite the fact that net immigration into Austria is now virtually zero, due to the tough anti-immigrant laws and restrictions already passed by the ruling SDP/PP coalition over the last 10 years.
Part of the explanation for the spectacular and alarming success of the Freedom Party lies in the long-term stagnation of the Austrian political scene. The country has, in effect, been run by a consensus of centrist socialists and conservatives since 1945.
Klima's SDP has held the reins of power for nearly thirty years, with Schussel's PP as its faithful junior coalition partner. The system, although formally democratic, thus came to bear many resemblances to a one-party state. Possession of a party card, whether SDP or PP, came to figure prominently in any coherent career strategy, especially in the public sector, where patronage remains firmly entrenched.
This real existing duopoly, which survived for a whole decade after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, has now started to crack, and the far right has been able to turn its opponents' weaknesses to its own advantage.
The success of the Freedom Party will certainly give a boost to neo-Nazi organisations, and other rightist extremists, throughout Europe. On hearing the Austrian election results, Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Italian founder of fascism and currently an MP with the far-right National Alliance, declared, "The Austrians have sent out a great signal of liberty. They have shown us they know how to raise their hearts and elect someone who has given them a strong programme aimed at solving their nation's problems."
Others, however, may feel that Austria's problems are just beginning.
The inevitable row between the Israeli government and that of Austria has already broken out, with Barak's administration threatening to "reassess" its relations with Austria if Haider should enter the government. The irony of such criticism from a state which itself constitutionally discriminates on racial grounds against a substantial minority of its own population is perhaps underlined by the fact that the victims in both cases are dark-skinned non-Europeans, including millions of Arab and other African and Asian immigrant labourers.
The reemergence of fascism at the end of the century is a threat not just to its most immediate victims, but to the whole of humanity. To judge from the signals emerging from Austria last week, rebuilding those forces which can confront that threat has become, once again, an urgent task.