Up the Learning Curve

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Viennese police expected the worst last week when Austria's new coalition government, vilified at home and abroad for its inclusion of ministers from the far-right Freedom Party, sat for the first time to present its program. Placard-waving demonstrators blocked Vienna's majestic boulevards and about 600 police in riot gear manned steel barricades ringing the parliament. But the clashes failed to materialize--either on the streets or in the legislative chamber. Austria's new government took up its duties with decorum, easily weathering a no-confidence vote and even promising compensation to Nazi-era slave laborers. Indeed, the biggest controversy was not about the Freedom Party's xenophobic pronouncements but about the government's plans to trim welfare benefits and raise the age of retirement.

With American and other European governments distancing themselves from the coalition, and with widespread domestic resistance to the prospect of social and economic reform, the new administration got off to a rocky start. Unlike their partners in the People's Party, the Vice Chancellor and five ministers representing Jörg Haider's Freedom Party are inexperienced in federal politics. That could hobble the administration as it confronts a particularly fractious period of budget cuts, public sector layoffs and welfare reform. And even though Haider remains Governor of his home province of Carinthia, he will exert a strong influence in Vienna.

The Freedom Party had promised more than it delivered when it entered government. Haider had declared he would bring a variety of "experts" with him, including an Austrian director of the World Bank, but so far none of these experts have appeared. Instead, the Haider team is notable for its youth and the haste with which it was put together.

Karl-Heinz Grasser, 31, Austria's youngest-ever Finance Minister, is a charter member of the so-called Buberl Partei, or Young Lads Party, a close circle of Haider intimates who are ambitious and devoted to their leader. Grasser's governing experience is limited to just over two years as Second Deputy Governor in Carinthia, where he signed--and later defended--a decree reserving public contracts for construction firms that did not employ foreigners. He is bright, pragmatic and has shown an independent streak by daring to criticize Haider and other party hard-liners.

Justice Minister Michael Krüger, 44, is older but even less seasoned. An attorney from Upper Austria who, like Haider, favors black casual dress and fast cars, he served as the Freedom Party's parliamentary spokesman on cultural affairs but is notably free of judicial experience. He is tough on crime--advocating lifetime imprisonment for pedophiles, for example--in a country that has a low crime rate. Social Affairs Minister Elisabeth Sickl's administrative background was as director of a vocational school in Carinthia. Her brief is to confront Austria's powerful labor unions over pension reform in the first test of the government's declared intention to slash social spending. "It's a political minefield," says Peter Rabl, editor of the daily Kurier.

Compared to those colleagues, Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, 39, is a veteran, having served as a European M.P. in Brussels for 16 months. But her non-party experience is mainly in public relations. Before ascending to the third most important job in Austria, Riess-Passer--whose nickname is "Haider's fountain pen"--was Freedom Party chairwoman and a die-hard Haider loyalist. She is expected to be his most reliable mouthpiece in the new government.

Some of the Freedom Party's inexperience will be counterbalanced by the comparative professionalism of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and his People's Party, which had divvied up power with the Social Democrats for more than 50 years. In his opening remarks to parliament last week, Schüssel vowed to show "emphatic loyalty" to European values and reiterated his administration's support for nato and E.U. enlargement. Talk of politically touchy subjects, such as Haider's campaign promise to halt immigration, was kept to a minimum. Differences that may divide the coalition--on family policy and the state's responsibility for job creation--were downplayed.

Abroad, the new Austrian government can expect ostracism and at home it will meet stiff resistance to its planned reforms. Nearly 40% of Austrians polled last week said they expected continuous demonstrations as a result of a breakdown of the consensus politics the country has enjoyed since the 1950s. The man to thank for that is Haider, who despite his professed wish to stay out of the limelight seems eager to tug at the reins of power. "He's a sleeping volcano," says the Kurier's Rabl. No one expects him to lie dormant for long.

With reporting by Angela Leuker/Vienna