VIENNA - The far-right Freedom Party faced a crucial test of strength in a local election in Vienna on Sunday after dominating the election campaign with vehement attacks on foreigners and Austria's Jewish leader.
Voters went to the polls in mild, cloudy weather in the biggest popularity test for Joerg Haider's Freedom Party since the anti-immigrant group joined a national coalition with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's conservative People's Party 13 months ago.
About 1.1 million Viennese, about one-sixth of eligible voters nationwide, may cast their ballots in the election. Polling stations were open from 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) to 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) with provisional results expected three hours later.
Vienna's Social Democrat Mayor Michael Haeupl, who heads a coalition with the People's Party in this city of 1.6 million, appears certain to be re-elected but the result of the vote will be watched for its national implications.
The Freedom Party suffered defeats in state elections in Styria and Burgenland last year. Some political commentators believe that if the party does badly again, Haider may conclude that being part of the national government is damaging to him and may terminate the alliance with Schuessel.
But others say the Freedom Party has gained support in recent opinion polls with help from Haider, who still dominates the populist group despite resigning as leader last year to focus on being governor of the southern province of Carinthia.
"The Freedom Party had a disastrous position at the outset," political analyst Fritz Plasser told daily Der Standard. "It was not unrealistic in January to talk of losses of eight to 10 percent. It would have been a defeat of such dimensions that you could not ignore it. But the situation has changed."
Pollsters now forecast some losses for the Freedom Party, which won 27.9 percent of the vote in the 1996 Vienna election, but not big enough to cast a shadow on the national coalition.
HAIDER ATTACKS JEWISH LEADER
The Freedom Party, the second largest party in the capital since 1991, has been running a characteristically provocative campaign, plastering the city with posters in which the words "Foreigners," "Crime" and "Drugs" are conspicuously linked.
Vienna has 285,000 legal immigrants, representing 18 percent of the capital's population. The Freedom Party says the true figure is much higher if illegal aliens are included and is very critical of foreigners who refuse to conform with Austrian ways.
But Haider, whose face adorns many posters instead of that of the party's main candidate in the city, Helene Partik-Pable, added a new dimension by launching a sustained attack on Jewish leader Ariel Muzicant, which is unprecedented in post-war Austria.
Widely branded anti-Semitic, Haider's attacks include charges that the Jewish leader is unpatriotic and involved in allegedly dubious real-estate business in Vienna. The attacks have raised concern abroad and Muzicant is suing him for libel.
Haider, best known internationally for controversial remarks about Austria's Nazi past for which he later apologised, says his criticism of Muzicant is justified and that religion cannot shield anyone from public scrutiny.
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