Frustrated Austrians approach presidential election fearful of change

May 24, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

VIENNA -- Austrians go to the polls today to elect a successor to their controversial president, Kurt Waldheim, in an uneasy political climate that belies the country's emergence as the the region's economic and political heart.

Instead of being optimistic over the country's gains and the expected end of its international isolation caused by Mr. Waldheim's Nazi past, many voters are frustrated with the country's moribund political establishment and are experimenting with far-right parties.

The ambivalence is nowhere more evident than in the capital, Vienna. Earlier in this century, the city was a magnet for hundreds of thousands of Czechs, Slovakians, Hungarians and other minorities from the reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today the streets are again full of tourists and workers from those same regions, all of them helping to fuel an economic boomlet.

And rather than being on the edge of Western Europe and almost surrounded by Communist countries, residents can now make day trips to Bratislava, the charming capital of Slovakia that once was connected to Vienna by streetcar.

Few people, however, are rejoicing at the changes brought on by the collapse of communism.

"Austria used to be a quiet place. Now it's more open but has more problems too. And none of the old political parties seem to have answers," said Alois Kartner, the 52-year-old owner of a Viennese coffee house.

The new problems, such as refugees from Yugoslavia and 100,000 illegal laborers from other neighboring countries, have made Austrians insecure and helped to push many into the arms of the extreme-right Free Democratic Party, which won 25 percent of the vote in Vienna's city elections last year.

The party has not done as well in the current presidential campaign but is angling to play the role of kingmaker and prepare the way to take power within the next two years.

During last month's initial four-way vote for president, the Free Democratic candidate came in third with 16 percent of the vote. This was not enough for participation in today's runoff, but Free Democratic leader Joerg Haider has told his supporters to back the presumed underdog, conservative People's Party candidate Thomas Klestil.

This crucial support has now put Mr. Klestil, a 59-year-old career diplomat and former ambassador to the United States, a nose ahead of his Social Democratic opponent, Rudolf Streicher, 53, a popular transport minister and industrialist.

Although largely a ceremonial office, the Austrian presidency plays a key role in building the government coalition after national elections. Members of Mr. Haider's party hope that a grateful Mr. Klestil would ask the Free Democrats to join the government after the 1994 vote.

Mr. Klestil, however, has promised that he will act independently of Mr. Haider, who has attracted international criticism by praising Nazi employment policies and blaming foreigners for Austria's problems.

"I will stand above the parties and be an advocate for all Austrians," Mr. Klestil said.

It is a sign of the dissatisfaction with the two main parties that Mr. Klestil and Mr. Streicher are playing down their party affiliations.

The Social Democrats and People's Party control many aspects of Austrian life, with party membership necessary for promotion throughout the bureaucracy, school system and even in some state-owned companies. Qualified people who are in a different party, or in none at all, are often overlooked.

Fritz Plasser, a professor at the Institute for Applied Social and Economic Research, said that Austrians used to be content with this system but that better education and social mobility mean that people feel stifled by the parties' huge influence. "The voters have changed, but the old structures haven't," Mr. Plasser said.

That the government has been a coalition of the two major parties since 1987 has compounded popular dissatisfaction. The usual anti-government feeling has been channeled to the two small opposition parties, the environmental Greens and Mr. Haider's Free Democrats, Mr. Plasser said.

The two big parties' policies seem nearly identical to many voters. This has made today's choice more a matter of style, giving the cool and eloquent Mr. Klestil of the People's Party an edge over his stammering opponent.

The one significant difference between the two is in foreign policy, where Mr. Klestil favors a much more flexible form of Austrian neutrality, hinting that it might have to be sacrificed if the country is to join the European Community as planned in a few years. Mr. Streicher, on the other hand, has campaigned vigorously for strict neutrality, which is a popular stand with many Austrians.

Victory by either candidate would end the isolation of Austria caused by the presidency of Mr. Waldheim. The former United Nations secretary-general was banned from entering the United States because he was a member of a German army unit that committed atrocities in Greece.

In anticipation of Mr. Waldheim's departure, Austrian officials are preparing to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel and to send today's victor on a tour of Western countries.

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