That face has been on posters all over the Austrian capital in the past few days as the province of Vienna, the country's most populous, gears up for local elections this week. The polls are the largest and most significant since the Freedom Party joined the government and will serve as a barometer of its popular appeal. It's a mixed picture. Like the party's jury-rigged platform, which manages to blend xenophobia with bungee-jumping hipness, opinions about Freedomites are sharply divided. Critics bemoan a coarsening of public discourse, but government officials claim the party is a benevolent force for change. "In 20 years I have never experienced such a positive partnership," said Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. "The Freedom Party brings a fresh spirit, and [Riess-Passer] is excellent. I trust her and she trusts me." Though overall support for the Freedom Party has declined a bit, analysts say it is here to stay. Austria's right-wing coalition, says Schüssel, "is a positive example to the world."
Really? "Foreigners: we understand the concerns of the Viennese," warns a Freedom Party poster on the famous Ring Boulevard. "More foreigners in public housing," cracks another, mocking the Green Party's more tolerant policies. The harshness of the campaign, criticized by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights for "legitimizing intolerance," belies a percolating anxiety. After years of steady growth, the far-right party has lately suffered setbacks. In two regional elections it fared worse than in previous polls, and support nationwide is down from 27% in 1999 to 20% today. Three out of the party's original six ministers have stepped down, and several of its officials were embroiled in a scandal over allegedly inappropriate use of police files, though some of the charges have been dropped. Haider concedes that the protest vote which boosted his party's showing in 1999 has fallen away now that the party is in power. Others say his comparatively low profile last year could have hurt. But E.U. sanctions designed to punish Austria almost certainly did not. "They drew us closer together," says Haider. As for the anti-foreigner campaign rhetoric, Haider says, "In the beginning of the '90s, a wave of immigrants came to Vienna and the people have been disturbed by this. They feel they are not able to handle this problem."
The party has lost some support among blue-collar workers, thanks to the coalition government's austerity package, but young conservatives are pleased. "It's an open party that has changed the political landscape," says Stefan Ehweiner, 23, a student at Vienna's Economics University. For supporters, ambivalence about Austria's wartime past may be less important than the prospect of new economic growth. The party has also managed to shed most of its social stigma. "This is so exciting," sighed a woman in a long low-cut black dress, gazing up at the President's box at last month's Opera Ball, high point of Vienna's social season. A year ago, the same ball was shunned by Europe's political élite. This year even the Spanish Foreign Minster showed up. "I love to watch the important people," said the fan, "especially Mr. Grasser." Karl-Heinz Grasser, 32, the Freedom Party's telegenic Finance Minister, is a rising star. "We are here," he said contentedly to strains of Strauss.
Haider was not at the ball, but, says Schüssel, "he is still one of the most influential politicians in Austria." He was one of six local and national officials to draw up the country's budget last month, for example. The shock jock of European politics has entangled himself in a series of disputes in recent months: at the Vatican in December he recommended that Italy slash immigration, and at a beer-hall rally in Upper Austria he noted that it was odd that the leader of Vienna's Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, could have so much dirt sticking to him. That comment was labelled anti-Semitic by Muzicant, who is suing, and by the World Jewish Congress, while the U.S. embassy said: "We should all be especially sensitive to comments that could be interpreted as xenophobic or anti-Semitic." Haider insists it was only a pun on the name Ariel, a brand of soap powder. Anyway, he says, Muzicant deserves being attacked for "untruthful" allegations that Jews were being hounded out of Austria. "He is not clean in his policy, that was my point."
The impact of all this on ordinary Austrians is hard to measure. The party has yet to draw condemnation for policies, only for some of its members' xenophobia and ambivalent attitude toward the past. "What is important," says Christian Rainer, publisher of Austria's profil magazine, "is the breaking of the taboo. We have in government a party that draws its people from a shady brownish background that has not come to terms with its Nazi past." One Freedom Party leader last year repeated the SS motto in a public address, later claiming ignorance of the phrase, while the head of the party's Vienna campaign said in a parliamentary debate in 1999 that black Africans "not only look different, they are different ... they are especially aggressive."
The old coalition that ruled Austria for 30 years straddled left and right; the new pairing is exclusively right. One result is the return of the Protestkultur. Every Thursday night a rag-tag group of 200 to 300 demonstrators troops through the city's avenues carrying anti-Freedom Party placards. "It's their language [that is harmful]," says Johannes, 45, a civil servant. "One day people will say it's right."
Haider is optimistic about his party's chances this week. With a big enough turnout, he is betting on 25% of the vote, 3% less than in 1996. In the longer term, he says, he wants to organize a Europe-wide party that will tap into the "disappointment all over Europe" about the E.U. and the "bureaucratic style of this monster." One idea: a referendum on European expansion. An Italian party has already appealed to him for help. "It may be the start of something new," he says. Something else to set Europe's capitals on edge.