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Punishing Austria only aids and abets ugly Haiderism

Act now, before the French gain the European Union’s presidency The Austrian far right in power: special report by Hugo Young

Struggling to define some political principles, the European Union made one of its members, Austria, a pariah. That was in January. Europe issued a moral statement, and Austria was duly punished. But the policy has become self-defeating. It wasn’t wrong, but it is no longer right. Now the EU probably has only until the end of this week to change it. A policy that once expressed broad European ideals urgently needs rescuing from the grip of narrow national politics. British liberals need to face the implications.

The man who first set ostracism rolling was Austria’s own head of state, President Thomas Klestil. Fearing he might be pressed to accept a new coalition including the neo-fascist Freedom party led by Jšrg Haider, he privately encouraged other EU countries to send out warning signals. They agreed to do so. Austria, they said, would face sanctions if this happened. But it did happen. The threat did not work. At the political level, Austria has been ostracised for five months. When the foreign minister came to London the other day, the only public figure who would receive her was, fatally, Margaret Thatcher.

The EU action wasn’t deeply considered. National leaders were more engaged that foreign ministries, and the commission had no say. The gesture was abrupt and rather grand. Haider’s party has a shocking record of Holocaust denial, immigrant-bashing and related Hitlerite taints. Its involvement as junior partner in the coalition cast the first shadow over the mutual trust and common values that have governed the EU for 40 years. Led by France and Belgium, which have kept their own burgeoning fascist parties out of government, the union agreed to assert the limits of tolerable political extremism.

The message was to Austria, but also to aspirant members of the EU, especially those in the second tier such as Romania and Bulgaria with little democratic tradition. It was meant to lay down the standards of decency the EU would defend. Austria, to some extent, heard the message. Haider, of course, despised it. But before being sworn in, the new government averred more strongly than any predecessor Austrian complicity in Nazi crimes.

It has since done nothing, as a government, to advance the worst of the Freedom party’s baleful programme. It has not acted against minority rights, nor undermined democracy. Haider, albeit with subversive intent, has left the party leadership. The EU case against Austria remains, uncomfortably, in the realm of theory rather than practice.

Like many acts deriving from political lunge more than diplomatic calculation, modes of exit from this one were not thought out. Now that exit seems necessary, it faces big obstacles. Though more an irritant than a scourge, the sanctions are building punitive consequences, all in the wrong places.

In several EU countries, they’re beginning to be seen as a threat to national political integrity. Tolerable, even admirable, as a temporary measure, they’re growing into what looks like an indefinite assault on a country where 27% of voters, after all, did vote for Jšrg Haider. Denmark, in particular, registers alarm at such an override of democracy. Even though "Brussels" had nothing to do with this, the Danish referendum on the euro could be determined by nightmare images of EU impositions on the democratic will, if the Austrians aren’t restored to normality before September.

From Austria itself, the effects could spread deep and wide. A plebiscite on sanctions is promised there, also in September. Though Haider’s support hasn’t grown much, indignation at the sanctions has. This is certain to excite more anti-EU feeling, producing a vote that asserts Austria’s determination not to be bossed around. Haider’s anti-immigrant rhetoric will become more not less resonant. Opposition to enlargement, by far the most important item on the EU agenda, will intensify and, since this requires a unanimous vote, could drive Austria, backed by a popular mandate, to block it altogether.

Most players in the EU game now seem to understand this. Even those once most outraged by the Haider party’s presence in government privately admit that sanctions ought to end. Austria, they say, mustn’t be let off the hook, and must still be watched. But this can’t go on indefinitely. She must be given the prospect of remission for good behaviour. Tony Blair takes this line. The question is: can the collective talents of 14 countries’ diplomacy be mobilised in time to stop a spiralling diplomatic calamity? Or will a piece of genuine supra-national idealism be destroyed, ironically, by national politics?

The key culprit here is the key originator: France. Which is where Portugal comes in. Next week France takes over from Portugal as president of the EU. For France the original desire not to encourage its own National Front vote - the objective was fair enough - has shifted into rivalry between President Chirac and prime minister Jospin as to which can outdo the other in proven dedication to the anti-fascist cause. The presidential election approaches. More immediately there are municipal elections, in which Chirac fears the National Front. It’s commonly reckoned that, once France takes over the EU, the portcullis will come down against any Austrian deal, and may stay down during the next two presidencies, first Sweden then Belgium, both in the van of the anti-Austria campaign.

Much rests, therefore, on the dying days of the Portuguese presidency. Portugal, it must be said, has not done well so far. Nor have the Austrians, with their propensity to blab about any private diplomacy that might be going on. But now the end game looms, and everybody knows it. A deal just might be done, whereby Austria achieves a suspension of sanctions, conditional on accepting a few months’ invigilation of her conduct. She may have to promise to take part in EU anti-racist campaigns, which she hasn’t yet done. Another idea is for more explicit anti-Nazi history teaching in schools. Exactly who would make the analysis of Austria’s behaviour, and how long the transition would last, are sensitive questions. But it seems exceedingly important that Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese prime minister, gives what remains of his energy to pushing hard on both Paris and Vienna before Friday.

Austria is a hard case. Hella Pick, in her penetrating new study Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider (IB Tauris, 24.50), says that Haider’s very presence in politics casts doubt on the country’s efforts over the last decade to portray itself as a mature democracy. But the EU has done as much as it practically can to lay its demands on the line. Indefinite sanctions, unremissible by any corrective action except the improbable de-election of the Freedom party, only make the problem worse. The best way to stop Haiderism is to end a punishment that has had its day.
- The Guardian


Mexico’s first real election

By Gwynne Dyer
Would you trust a presidential candidate who tells one audience (a mainly female one) that "the wonderful women of Mexico deserve total respect and the opportunity to fulfill themselves," and then tells another audience that "I am going to govern for the forty million Mexicans whose fate has been to dance with the ugliest girl." Nice try, Vicente, but no cigar.

Vicente Fox Quesada is a man whose brimming confidence in his ability to charm any audience has taken him a long way. It took him into the senior ranks of the marketing executives at Coca-Cola Mexico, it got him elected governor of Guanajuato state, and on Sunday it may well take him all the way to the presidency of Mexico. Yet the charm is a bit slick, and there is a suspicion of hollowness beneath.

Then there are the lapses of taste and judgement. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), 71 years in power and showing every year of its age, is a ideal, almost stationary target, and this time, for the first time, it looks as if the election will be more or less honest. Yet Fox cannot resist referring to the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida, as ‘that yellow-faced shorty’, and insinuating that he is gay.

He shows equally little restraint in praising himself. Mexico, he has grandiosely announced, is in need of a "Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela" — and the carefully unspoken implication is that Vicente Fox might just incorporate the finest qualities of those two heroes in his own rather large frame.

Walesa or Nelson Mandela would ever have had anything to do with his party.

What has given PAN such momentum this time is the fact that it really looks like it could end PRI’s long reign. Hardly any Mexican alive is old enough to remember a time when PRI didn’t run the country, and the huge national sense of impatience is summed up in PAN’s ubiquitous one-word election slogan ‘Ya’: ‘at last’, or ‘now’, or even ‘that’s enough’.

The opinion polls now show Fox and Labastida running neck and neck, at around 40 percent of the popular vote each, with left-wing candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) a distant third with about 20 percent. But it is more an ‘anyone but PRI’ vote than a vote of confidence in Vicente Fox.

If Cardenas had a better chance of beating the PRI candidate, many of Fox’s voters would migrate there, though the two men are far apart ideologically. In that sense, this is a revolutionary moment: everyone senses that this time Mexico could finally emerge from its political strait-jacket, and most people apart from the bought, the frightened and the PRI party faithful want it to happen. But what kind of transition will it be?

This depends on the answers to three questions: what kind of country is Mexico, what kind of party is the PRI, and what kind of man is Fox? Two of the three answers, at least, are reassuring.

Mexico is a big, self-confident, middle-income country that has made a good recovery from the peso crisis of the mid-90s. It has relatively minor ethnic and linguistic divisions, and no significant armed insurgency except a dormant one in the far south. Forty million Mexicans live in grinding poverty (the ones who "dance with the ugliest girl"), but there is already a better welfare net than in most developing countries — and at its present economic growth rate, Mexico could be nearing full developed status in another twenty years.

The PRI, since the demise of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union nine years ago, has been the oldest continuously ruling party in the world, but it was never such a rigidly ideological and intolerant body. It has been guilty of immense corruption and occasional violence in its long career, but its instincts and traditions incline it towards manipulation and compromise, not ruthless oppression and imposed conformity.

Indeed, it has allowed other parties to run in Mexican elections for several decades now, and even let them win at the state level. Its whole style is radically different from the old CPSU, on the one hand — and equally different rom the completely artificial parties that were created to back up the regimes of dictators like Indonesia’s Suharto. The PRI has real roots, and even if it finally loses the presidency this time, it will probably survive as a major player in Mexican politics.

So the country is ready for the change, and the ruling party is ready too (though it does not relish the prospect). What about the man who must lead Mexico through this historic change of regime if he wins the election on Sunday?

The closer you look, the less you see — but that does not necessarily mean that there is nothing there. Vicente Fox is in the happy position of being swept towards power by popular discontent with the ruling party, so why risk an accident by making declarations about actual policy and principles? And whatever his policies and principles may be, Mexico is probably big and mature enough to weather the change without a disaster.

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