'The David Duke of Austria' May Be More Like Ross Perot

April 10, 1994|By DAN FESPERMAN

VIENNA — Vienna. -- The cameras are rolling and the pens are scribbling, all because the --ing man who aspires to be chancellor of Austria, Joerg Haider, has at last moved onto his most popular subject.

It's time to bash some foreigners.

"A Lebanese man convicted 50 times for breaking and entering and other offenses wasn't supposed to re-enter Austria until the year 2047," Mr. Haider says, "but he keeps coming back. There was a Bulgarian caught red-handed, and yet he still receives social benefits. . . . A Romanian who was convicted gets a computer and 40,000 Austrian schillings [about $3,600] in public funds."

Mr. Haider goes on like this for several minutes, cruising through a catalog of offending nationalities as if reading a 10 Most Wanted List. This kind of talk, along with his lean good looks, have led some critics to call him the David Duke of Austria.

But to liken the 43-year-old Mr. Haider to the U.S. Klansman-turned-politician is to underrate his complexity and appeal. In shaping a new style of right-wing populism -- an anti-establishment pitch often closer to Ross Perot than Mr. Duke -- Mr. Haider has found a way to succeed in Austria even as his political kin of the German right wing continue to founder.

At the moment he is on track to meet his goal to become chancellor by 1998.

With national elections approaching in October for Germany and Austria, Germany's largest right-radical Republicans Party remains stalled below 5 percent in national opinion polls and recent regional elections.

In Austria, Mr. Haider's more refined xenophobia is cresting beyond the 17 percent his party gained in the last national elections.

The latest surge came last month, in parliamentary elections for three of Austria's nine states. Mr. Haider's Freedom Party won 27 of the 108 open seats, and in his home state of Carinthia the party took 33 percent of the vote.

Also on the rise in Austria is violence by right-radical and neo-Nazi thugs, which in some ways has assumed a more threatening tone than in Germany, as attested by a recent round of letter bombs to prominent Austrians.

Mr. Haider's critics say his rhetoric only incites such behavior. Mr. Haider responds by condemning the violence and saying that he has again been misunderstood. Economic problems caused by immigration that have stirred violence, not his rhetoric, he says.

Mr. Haider has acquired some defenders in some unlikely corners. One is Manfred Brunner, the former Christian Democratic politician from Germany who has started his own Perot-style political movement in opposition to Germany's ruling parties.

Mr. Brunner, backed by a small but impressive group of intellectuals and business people, has raised eyebrows by praising Mr. Haider. But he has not backed down. He says Mr. Haider's only sin has been in breaking several post-World War II taboos on political discourse.

"Reforms from the right are just not 'politically correct' anywhere in Europe," Mr. Brunner says. "At least in Germany and Austria, topics like immigration, national identity and refugees may not be touched outside of the left-wing discourse. . . . The Freedom Party people are no Nazis; rather they are successors of certain fighters in the 1848 movement of national-liberal citizens. The case of Haider is a typical example of witch hunting: He is a convincing and convinced democrat, but he won't subordinate to left-wing taboos. He breaks them. Thus, he is damned by all those people."

But why must Mr. Haider keep making such a big issue out of foreigners? In the United States, political analysts might say he was simply "pushing a hot button" -- gaining votes on the cheap by stirring gut-level emotions on volatile matters.

Mr. Haider once said, "The multicultural society is a fiction that cannot work," and that seems to be the basis of his strong beliefs on immigration issues.

"There's not one society all over the world where this concept [of multiculturalism] works, especially if we look toward the U.S.A.," he says during an interview in his Vienna office. "What happens when different cultures live together is that ghettos and isolation different ethnic groups arise. The results are social problems -- slums, crimes. The recent Los Angeles riots are a warning example that a multicultural society cannot work out."

Immigrants who strive to assimilate into the host culture are fine, he says, provided that one doesn't let in too many at once and discourage assimilation. Or provided that one doesn't allow immigrants who might not assimilate at all, such as fundamentalist Muslims.

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