Austria Faces Far-Right Surge in Vote

VIENNA -- Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, projecting himself as a man of the people, wrapped up his campaign for European and Vienna elections Friday, facing a stiff challenge from the growing popularity of the far right.

Vranitzky's Social Democrats have targeted the working class vote following a growing swing of support, particularly in the Austrian capital, from the left to the far right.

Polls show the nationalist Freedom Party has consistently captured workers' votes since hardliner Joerg Haider took control of the party 10 years ago.

Some 5.8 million voters are eligible to vote in the first election in Austria to fill 21 seats in the Strasbourg-based European Parliament.

"Our goal in Europe is to take part in a common fight against unemployment and for the security of our jobs," the chancellor told reporters while touring a job training center near the banks of the Danube river.

The former banker, who looks more at home among boardroom gray suits than blue factory overalls, issued the same message when speaking to railway workers last week.

His job pledges were made less with an eye to Europe than to secure votes in Vienna, where the Social Democrats look likely to lose overall control of city hall for the first time in its democratic history.

The leftist reign over the city, known for decades as "Red Vienna," was broken from 1934 by Austrian fascists following a civil war. The regime of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, the country's most infamous son, ran the city from 1938 to 1945.

Haider, who held his last big rally in Vienna on Thursday night, has exploited job fears among workers, who have seen unemployment rise since Austria joined the European Union 22 months ago.

Speaking to hundreds of supporters in the shadow of St. Stephen's Cathedral, Haider deployed his trademark anti-foreigner rhetoric to blame immigrants for taking jobs and occupying Vienna city council apartments.

Backing for Haider shot up to 22 percent in the last city state poll in 1991 from 9 percent in the previous election. Social Democrat support slipped from 55 to 47 percent.

A survey conducted by research institute Market gave the Social Democrats 42 percent this time round, which would probably mean the party having to rule Vienna in coalition with the conservative People's Party, as they do at federal government level.

The nationwide Euro-election will be the first litmus test for the government since last December's general election and a two-year austerity budget in March, which has led to tax rises, higher energy prices and cuts in welfare benefits.

"Two-thirds of the undecided voters say they are considering delivering a warning to the government," the current affairs magazine News said. That could cut nationwide support for the Social Democrats to 29 percent, a post-World War II low, and leave the Freedom Party and People's Party fighting for second place with around 27 percent backing each, Gallup Institute said.