EU struggles with Austrian electoral crisis

February 07, 2000|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The European Union's reaction to the Haider affair in Austria expresses fine sentiments about democracy but offends the fundamental democratic principle that the popular will, expressed in an election, deserves respect.

Great pressure was placed on Austria to block the government coalition, announced last Thursday, between Joerg Haider's right-wing Austrian Freedom Party and the mainstream conservative People's Party.

This was the only governing coalition on offer, since the People's Party and the Social Democrats failed to agree to form a government. Moreover, it was the coalition the Austrian public had effectively voted for.

Mr. Haider's party won 26.91 percent of the vote in the last legislative election, marginally more than the vote given to the mainstream conservatives, who governed the country for 13 years in a coalition with the Social Democrats. (The Social Democrats led in October's election, with 33.11 percent of the total.)

Change sought

The clear intention of those who voted for the Freedom Party was to prevent another Popular Party-Social Democratic government. The two parties have ruled Austria since World War II, either in coalition, or in what may be called collusion, with the country's institutions and posts of power shared proportionately between the ruling parties.

That corrupting situation has for years tended to stifle clear-cut policy debate and a real choice in national direction.

Joerg Haider is not a man any democrat is pleased to see as a major figure in Austrian politics, but the collaboration of the two established parties invited a populist reaction of just this kind.

Mr. Haider's policies bear the taint of xenophobia, and the Freedom Party leader's speeches have regularly included ostensible slips of the tongue that bring to mind Nazi rhetoric. His conduct as president of the state of Carinthia, where he chose to make himself also the minister of culture, has justified concern about his political methods and ambitions. He is a talented orator with demagogic skills. Serious people in Vienna consider him an unstable and dangerous man.

Shared views

However, his hostility to further European integration, and his call for new limits on immigration, are no more extreme than positions taken by mainstream political figures elsewhere in the European Union. There is a European consensus on the need for common controls on immigration.

Mr. Haider has populist counterparts elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. There is no racist taint to Ross Perot or Patrick Buchanan's hostility to easy immigration to the United States, but the two represent a current of populist nationalism similar to that tapped by Mr. Haider in Austria, by Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and by the Zurich businessman Christoph Blocher, whose nationalist and xenophobic party recently succeeded in Switzerland's national elections.

Fourteen of the 15 European Union governments have done an obvious electoral service to Mr. Haider by imposing sanctions on Austria as punishment for the Freedom Party's participation in a coalition government. This reinforced the sense of frustration with domestic political blockage -- and the perception of international persecution -- that caused many Austrians to vote for him.

One can sensibly argue that what Austrian voters need is a dose of reality. Let them try out a rightist coalition and see what happens.

If human rights abuses follow, despite the solemn assurances demanded by Austrian President Thomas Klestil from the coalition parties, foreign sanctions would clearly be justified. They would be required by the obligations that link European Union members to one another.

However, Austrian voters can reasonably complain that their sovereignty is abused when they are told that membership in the European Union limits how they can legitimately express their opinions and cast their votes -- particularly when the main issues at stake are essentially domestic ones, concerning immigration and citizenship.

Practicing tolerance

One might say that the United States is an old and secure democracy that can afford to take a complacent view of demagogues (of whom America has seen many) and to practice wide tolerance concerning the expression of political opinion.

By contrast, the question now posed about Europe's political values is whether Europe's experience of Nazism justifies international constraint on the political freedom of EU members, and restrictions on political debate. In that case, how is it decided what is and is not fit for expression?

The American choice has been that acts can be proscribed and punished, but the expression of opinion should be free, and choices put before the electorate without limit. Despite the flawed American record on civil liberties, and the undeniably repressive force of conformist opinion in the United States, this is a principle that has proven itself.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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