Austria Vote / When an Efficient Far-right Meets a Deficient Center

Far-right parties' phenomenal electoral success leaves Austrian politics in disarray. How will Israel react?

"Is it possible to get political asylum in your country?" asked one colleague from a leading newspaper in Austria. Simultaneously joking and in shock, he spoke of the "chronicle of a political earthquake foretold," as did many other commentators who had to explain the rare achievement of Austria's nationalist far-right and the historic downfall of its mainstream parties in recent elections.

Exactly one year ago, everything looked different. Or at least that's how outgoing Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Austria, asked to describe the situation. "We did a lot to learn from our historic mistakes," he told Haaretz.

In a visit to Israel meant to "renew the friendship with Israel," Gusenbauer passed along the message that Austria, which has for years hidden the part it played in Nazi crimes, is today choosing to confront its past and take responsibility for its actions. In a speech at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Gusenbauer asked to close the circle opened by former Chancellor Franz Vranitzky during his 1993 speech in Jerusalem, in which he stated that the Nazis' first victim ? a definition held by Austria for some 50 years ? was also a hangman.

Gusenbauer stressed that many of the Holocaust's instigators were Austrian and complained about the long time it took his country to recognize that fact. In his conversation with Haaretz, the Chancellor spoke highly of his government's efforts to "educate and raise awareness to anti-Semitism and racism." Asked whether it was possible at all to alter the public mentality prevailing in Austria since the end of the War, the Chancellor praised his people for "marginalizing and shunning [far-right politician] Joerg Haider."

Gusenbauer was equally unimpressed with Heinz-Christian Strache, Haider's more radical successor as chairman of his former Freedom Party. He referred to a series of pictures in which the outspoken politician was seen in the company of skinheads as a "youthful whim."

"Haider is dead politically and no far-right leader could ever repeat his spectacular achievement of 1999 [in which elections his party won 28% of the vote]," Gusenbauer argued.

How could the Chancellor be so horribly mistaken? What went wrong, again, in the Austrian political system? There are several explanations:

1. Protest voting - for decades Austrian politics has been dominated, virtually uninterrupted, by a Socialist-Conservative coalition called Proporz. The voters' resentment, triggered by the decayed system as well as the demeanor of the members of the Grand Coalition, who spent most of their time in office on internal fighting, has been manifested in the most pronounced manner.

2. Economic malaise - The mainstream parties failed to keep their promises, and didn't deal successfully with soaring food and fuel prices, and rising unemployment rates. The voters' personal security declined, and their trust in the ruling parties eroded.

3. Xenophobic propaganda - political dismay has always served as a catalyst for anti-immigrant rhetoric, championed by the ultra-nationalist parties: slogans like "Stop Islamization!" "Church bells, not muezzin," and so on - linking these anxieties to the expanding European Union and crime rates - featured in the election campaign, and did not fall on deaf ears.

Commentators have also said the newly introduced voting age of 16 contributed to the popularity of far-right parties, which were the only ones that promised to cater to young voters.

In February 2000 the Israeli government decided to boycott the Austrian government after Haider joined the cabinet. Some argue in hindsight that terminating the tenure of the Israeli ambassador to Vienna prematurely was a harsh and hasty move, while others still maintain that it branded Israel as a "moral beacon," delivering a message it would not maintain healthy relations with governments infected by racist ideology.

Austria demonstrated again on Sunday that it has yet to forgo its troublesome past; Israel, for its part, will have to deal with dilemmas concerning the limits of its moral tolerance.