Austria's referendum on Nazism


GRAZ, Austria — Barbara Rozenkranz, the dour, embattled far-right candidate for Austria's presidential election on Sunday, will likely come in a distant second. But she is also on track to show that many Austrians are willing to back a known Nazi sympathizer.

Polls say Rosenkranz, a member of the Freedom Party, will take upward of 13 percent of the vote while Social Democrat incumbent Heinz Fischer will win with about 80 percent. Rosenkranz says her goal is 17 percent, which would top her party's previous presidential best in 1980 and match its share in the 2008 parliamentary elections.

The election will take a census of Austrian attitudes toward Nazism, unlike previous results. Unlike the typically murky views of Rosenkranz's Freedom Party peers, her own opinions on the issue have taken center stage throughout the campaign. Days before it officially started she triggered a media storm by saying anti-Nazi "Verbotsgesetz" laws should be scrapped, a statement she later said she made because her interviewer "treated her like a schoolgirl."

In the same interview she was also less than emphatic when asked if Nazi poison gas chambers existed, saying, "I know everything which was taught in school between 1964 and 1976." Saying no more than required by law sends out the clearest possible signal of Nazi sympathy an Austrian politician can make. Confronted with the same question as she prepared to enter the last week of the campaign, she said, simply, "Of course there were gas chambers."

This is not Rosenkranz's first foray on the campaign trail. Her political career began in 1993 when she became a deputy in the Lower Austrian Parliament, rising to become the region's minister for construction law and animal welfare in 2008.

Earlier in the campaign, she had secured the support of the newspaper Krone Zeitung, whose 89-year-old owner, Hans Dichand, approves of her candidacy mainly because of her virulently anti-European Union stance. In order to retain that support after the debacle over her call to end anti-Nazi laws, Rosenkranz had to send a signed note "distancing herself" from Nazism. The newspaper repaid her concise renunciation by publishing a poem ridiculing her Socialist opponent, Fischer, in the last week of the campaign.

Rosenkranz's family is also a subject of fascination. Those who doubt her sincerity point out that for the last 31 years the 51-year-old has been married to Horst Rosenkranz, former member of the now banned neo-Nazi NDP party and publisher of a far-right magazine, "Fakten." The couple has 10 children, six daughters and four sons, some with strikingly outmoded Germanic names such as Alwine, Hildrun, Mechthild, Sonnhild and Wolf. Having left the Catholic church, they attend Germanic summer and winter solstice rituals at which Barbara Rosenkranz calls on those assembled to recognize the destructive and creative force of fire.

The candidate protests that she should not be defined by the views of her husband and that she has suffered an "unprecedented campaign" against her. Indeed, the adverse reactions to her views do seem to weigh on her: Rosencranz appeared awkward and twitchy when facing questions from the media at a recent visit to Graz. Her speech at the rally afterward tipped from appropriately strident to rattled when she was confronted by a crowd of protesters jeering and lobbing the occasional object, which her minders fended off with umbrellas. But she defiantly plowed on delivering her warning of the threat posed by the EU, feminism, immigration and Islam.

Rosenkranz's suspicion of foreign influence does not stop her taking ideas and inspiration from abroad. Her party hailed the recent far-right victory in neighboring Hungary and Rosenkranz praises Switzerland's referendum decision to ban minarets: "I am in favor of protecting religious freedom, but minarets are a political symbol not a religious one." She also calls on Austria to require radio stations to play a certain amount of music with German lyrics, a nod to the language quota system in place in France.

The Freedom Party's leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, has distanced himself from Rosenkranz, choosing not to come to the formal opening of her campaign at the height of the Verbotsgesetz furor. Even so, she says she feels "sufficiently supported." And she may earn Strache's gratitude on Sunday, paving the way for further far-right gains by proving how many Austrians are unafraid to ignore the Nazi past.