Political deadlock has brought Austria’s far-right Freedom Party to the brink of power. That has created unease among those who worry that joining the Cabinet will legitimize the party’s extreme views — and those of like-minded political groups elsewhere in Europe. Freedom’s views are troublesome, but as the junior partner in the planned coalition, they need not set government policy. Instead, Austria’s mainstream parties must address the malaise and practices that eroded their popular support. Only that will erase the threat posed by the upstart party.
Austrian politics have been dominated during the postwar era by the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, a conservative group. While a Social Democrat has served as chancellor for 30 years, the two parties have divided up political and administrative posts between themselves. A tightly regulated economy has guaranteed a close relationship between business and politics that would be familiar to any observer of Japan’s “iron triangle” — and has created many of the same problems.
Last October, Austrian voters rejected the status quo in parliamentary elections. The Social Democrats maintained their position as the leading political party with one-third of the legislature’s 183 seats, while the Freedom Party squeezed past the People’s Party to claim the number two spot, although they each have 52 seats. The Social Democrats ruled out a coalition with Freedom, citing the nationalist rhetoric and the anti-immigration, anti-EU policies of its leader, Mr. Joerg Haider. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Viktor Klima was unable to reach agreement with his former partners and their 13-year coalition collapsed. The number two and three parties announced they had begun negotiations and were likely to form a government within a week.
While an alliance between the two right-leaning parties makes political sense, it has triggered alarm bells. After the election, Israel threatened to reconsider its ties with Austria if Freedom joined the government, and repeated that warning this week. European Union governments have expressed concern about the impact of Mr. Haider’s views on government policy and the degree to which Austria could then honor its EU commitments.
The Social Democrats counter that they can “tame” Freedom. Mr. Wolfgang Schuessel, the head of the People’s Party, is a reassuring figure. An experienced foreign minister with an international reputation, he would give the new government continuity and stability. Earlier this week, he tried to quell European fears by announcing that any coalition agreement would clearly commit the government to integration. His efforts to clean up the coalition’s international image were assisted by Mr. Haider, who said that he would remain at his post as governor of the province of Carinthia, and would support Mr. Schuessel as chancellor. The responsibilities that come with governing — and serving as junior partner in the coalition — will also moderate some of Freedom’s extremist positions.
Hopefully, that is correct. Nonetheless, Freedom’s rise to power pushes the boundary of acceptable politics further to the right. While it is premature to speak of a far-right revival European politics, the recent successes of such parties in Austria and in Switzerland do signal growing distrust of the mainstream parties that have dominated European politics in the postwar era. In Germany, there is fear that the scandal surrounding former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union will feed this tendency and open the door to extremist groups there.
If the threat has not surfaced, it is still very real. Germany’s scandals are being replayed in various forms in Belgium, France and Italy. In each case, individual misdeeds are symptoms of system fatigue. Once, the demands of the Cold War or European integration seem to justify bending the rules, as the son of former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi declared this week at his father’s memorial service. Voters no longer tolerate that thinking; the parties have yet to catch on.
In Austria, the two leading parties’ iron grip on power allowed Mr. Haider to campaign against “cronyism” and a system that put its needs before those of the citizens. His charges struck home. Since becoming leader of Freedom in 1986, he has tripled the party’s share of the vote and brought it to the brink of power. Being in the opposition has certain luxuries, however: Opposing is easier than proposing. Power brings responsibility and Freedom should find its extremism moderated. Perhaps Austria’s two other leading political parties will be similarly enlightened.
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