Far rights ascent in Austria vote concerns Barak, European Jews

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BUDAPEST — Sharp electoral gains by Austria's far-right Freedom Party have sounded alarm bells far beyond Austria's borders and have made controversial party leader Jorg Haider a key player in national and international politics.

His party surged to second place in Sunday's general election, riding a law-and-order, anti-immigrant platform that also criticized Austria's membership in the European Union and promised to change a stagnant political system.

The Freedom Party captured 27 percent of the vote, up more than 5 percent over the 1995 election.

It was the best showing by a far-right party in Europe since the end of World War II.

The Social Democrats remained the largest party, but dropped to 33.4 percent from 38 percent in 1995. The Freedom Party stood just 14,000 votes ahead of the conservative People's Party, which won 26.9 percent, slightly down from 28 percent in 1995.

The final results won't be known until 200,000 absentee ballots are counted.

Haider's campaign played on people's fears that immigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere would inundate the country and take their jobs.

As Austrian politicians begin the difficult process of forming a new government, the gains put the 49-year-old Haider, the son of Nazi supporters who is notorious for his past praise of the Hitler regime, into the position of potential kingmaker.

After the outgoing coalition of Social Democrats and the Peoples Party formally resigned Tuesday, Haider clearly claimed his party's right to a prominent role.

"We are ready to work, we are ready for government, we are ready to take on responsibility," he said.

Other right-wing parties across Europe exulted at Haider success.

But the Freedom Party gains drew outraged headlines and worried editorials evoking the specter of Hitler. Jewish representatives and political figures warned against the consequences.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was one of the most outspoken. He expressed "serious concern" at Haider's success.

"The rise of the extreme right must set off alarm bells among all the people of the free world who still recall the horrors of the Second World War," he said.

Barak "called on all enlightened forces in the world to band together in a common effort to block the spread of the neo-Nazi and fascist plague."

Andreas Nachama, the influential president of the Jewish community of Berlin, called Haider's success "a horrible blow against European unification, against tolerance in Europe, against everything that has been achieved in Austria in the last 10 years."

The liberal Greens also surged forward Sunday, winning 7.1 percent — a major increase from 4.8 percent last time.

Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen on Tuesday slammed international media coverage of the election as "hysterical."

"Austria was not a Nazi country before the election and has not become one since," he said.