Austrian leaders downplay far rights election victory

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VIENNA — Austrian leaders have used the opening of a new Jewish school here to pledge their commitment to democracy in the face of an international furor over far-right gains in last week's general election.

Chancellor Viktor Klima and President Thomas Klestil also urged foreign states and the media not to judge Austria solely on the electoral success of the anti-foreigner Freedom Party.

"Take this message with you," Klima told diplomats, political figures and Jewish leaders attending the opening Monday of the $8 million campus for the Lauder Chabad school, funded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and built on land donated by the city of Vienna.

"Austria is a functioning democracy, solidly based on European civil society and values such as freedom and human rights," Klima said.

Klima's remarks reflected the degree to which Austria is reeling since the Freedom Party captured more than 27 percent of the popular vote in the Oct. 3 elections.

The party's success, which marked the best showing by the far right in Europe since the end of World War II, has sparked tensions with Israel and reported concern among Austria's 9,000 Jews.

The elections catapulted the Freedom Party, led by populist firebrand Jorg Haider into second place among Austria's political forces, with 52 seats in the 183-member parliament.

Even before the final results were announced Tuesday, placing it just slightly ahead of the conservative Peoples Party, Haider claimed he should have a role in the new government and predicted he would become chancellor within four years.

In his remarks at the school's opening, Klima noted that Haider's success had triggered "memories, sorrows and anxieties" internationally — in particular, an emotional dispute with Israel.

Austria was annexed to Adolf Hitler's Third Reich in 1938, and many Austrians supported the Nazis. The country's Jews were persecuted and tens of thousands were deported and killed.

After the war, however, Austria was declared to have been the "first victim" of the Nazis. And — unlike Germany — it did not openly begin to confront its role in the Holocaust until the late 1980s, when Kurt Waldheim was elected president despite evidence he had covered up a Nazi past.

Since then Austria's leaders have formally owned up to the country's history on a number of occasions, though the issue remains highly sensitive.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy last week drew an angry response from Vienna by calling the election results "revolting" and saying Austria had become right-wing.

He described the Freedom Party as neo-Nazi and threatened to reassess relations with Austria if Haider is included in a new cabinet.

Klima assured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a phone call Saturday night that he would not include members of Haider's party in a coalition government.

However, Austria's interior minister, Karl Schloegl, left the door open for a coalition with the Freedom Party in an interview with the news magazine Format published Monday.

"In politics, nothing can be permanently shut out," Schloegl was quoted as saying. "I am, however, skeptical that [Haider] personally is acceptable to us."

Coalition talks, led by Klima's Social Democrats, which finished with 65 seats, could take months.

Klima told the audience at the Lauder Chabad inauguration that Austria should not be judged on the basis of one politician or party.

He pledged that as chancellor he would do everything in his power so that students — such as the Russian Jewish immigrants who made up much of the Lauder Chabad student body — "will be able to go to school, grow up in peace and live here."

Klestil stressed the same message during a ceremony Monday at the Hofburg Palace in which he presented Lauder with the Grand Decoration of Honor in Gold for Services to the Republic of Austria.

"We Austrians, because of our history, have to be sensitive and vigilant as to all forms of intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination. But we expect others, too, to be careful and fair in dealing with the facts and in their reporting in the media," he said.

"As president of Austria, I will remain fully committed to what I have said on various occasions over the years, and especially in the Knesset during my visit to Israel in 1994, on the importance of remembering the lessons of the past."

Lauder and other Jewish speakers in turn paid tribute to the role Austria and the city of Vienna played in the school project, sharply contrasting this policy with the anti-foreigner platform of the Freedom Party and the right.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency for Israel said it was sending a special emissary to Austria to handle requests for emigration in the wake of the elections.