By Francois Murphy
KLAGENFURT, Austria (Reuters)
Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is set to come a distant second when its former stronghold of Carinthia votes on Sunday, the third provincial election to suggest a slide in support for the party since it entered government less than three months ago
Carinthia was the fiefdom of Joerg Haider, who first led the Freedom Party (FPO) to mainstream success and died in a car crash in 2008. The southernmost of Austria’s nine provinces, bordering Italy and Slovenia, it is the only one the FPO won in October’s parliamentary election, with 32 percent of the vote.
But being in power, then and now, has not helped. The national coalition government’s struggles and a financial crisis dating back to Haider’s tenure as governor of the province have hurt the party’s image.
“We’re still paying for it! I’m furious,” Claudia Schwaerzli, a 49-year-old librarian, said of the crisis caused by the collapse of a local bank, Hypo Alpe Adria, whose rapid growth was encouraged under Haider.
A 2016 settlement with creditors left the province saddled with the most debt per capita in Austria
Local issues and personalities are sharply in focus. But in two other provincial elections in recent weeks, in Lower Austria in the east and Tirol in the west, the FPO has failed to match its score in the national parliamentary election.
An anti-Semitism scandal involving its top candidate in Lower Austria erupted days before the vote there, and more than 460,000 people have now signed a petition against the FPO’s flagship policy of allowing smoking in bars and restaurants – an embarrassment for a party committed to direct democracy.
Together, those issues raise the question of whether there is a limit to the appeal a protest party like the anti-immigration FPO can have once it has entered government.
“There is most definitely a connection and that is of course not only a provincial trend but also a national trend,” political analyst Thomas Hofer said.
“We also saw this in Lower Austria and Tyrol – that potential Freedom Party voters … when they basically feel ‘Well, the Freedom Party in power don’t do it dramatically differently or better than the others’, they stay at home,” he added.
Few doubt that Governor Peter Kaiser’s Social Democrats, who head a three-way coalition with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz‘s conservatives and the Greens, will win on Sunday. Kaiser has built a reputation for seriousness and stability in stark contrast to Haider’s populist charisma.
There is little polling available but one survey last week by pollster OGM for the Kleine Zeitung newspaper put the Social Democrats on 42 percent to the FPO’s 22 percent, with a margin of error of 3.5 points.
The head of the FPO in Carinthia, Gernot Darmann, has set himself a target of “clearly above 25 percent”, he told Reuters.
Last week he broke ranks with his party leader, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, by calling for a referendum on a smoking ban in bars and restaurants. He sought to shift the debate back to the core FPO issues like immigration.
“The next 100,000 people are waiting in North Africa to cross the Mediterranean and everyone is talking about smoking,” he said, sitting down for a hamburger between campaign stops. “It is a transparent distraction effort by the leftists.”
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Edting by Stephen Powell)