Austria's turn away from the right

Are Neo-Nazis on the run in Hitler's homeland?

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 2, 2006 4:42PM (EDT)

The surprise results of the Austrian election, in which the center-left Social Democrats out-polled the conservative People's Party, do not seem to be sparking the same grand pronouncements of ideological significance as last month's Swedish election. Where are the bloggers declaring the end of the free-market reform era in Central Europe? Where are the chest-beating leftists?

I jest, but only a little. Sweden occupies a far greater slice of world mind share than Austria, given its decades-long status as flag bearer for the modern welfare state. Austria's election results, no matter how stunning to political observers, do not augur major policy shifts, especially if the result is a "grand alliance" government between the Social Democrats and the People's Party.

Austria is more well-known for electing unrepentant Nazi sympathizers like Jorg Haider to office than it is for economic policy. In 2000, Haider's extreme right Freedom Party won a whopping 27 percent of the vote, and entered into a coalition government with the People's Party, sending Neo-Nazi chills throughout Europe.

But a lot appears to have changed in six years, and therein lies some room for left-of-center optimism. The Freedom Party, now minus Haider, who left to start a new party, the Movement for Austria's Future, came in third place, polling 11.2 percent. Haider's party appears to have gained 4.2 percent, just enough to qualify it as a legitimate political party. That's a far cry from 2000.

So Austria has turned away from the arch-right, and that's worth celebrating. It may not represent a "turn to the left" in the sense of a Brazil or Venuezela or Bolivia (and in Brazil, Lula suddenly seems to be in a little unexpected trouble). Haider, a man who has complimented the Third Reich's employment policies and gone out of his way to give tributes to the Waffen SS, has plummeted out of national prominence. I take more heart in that than I feel dismay at the Swedish left's fortunes.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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