When Jorg Haider first emerged into the political limelight, the European Parliament scented danger and described him as a "yuppie fascist". But back in 1986, when Haider gained the leadership of Austria's misnamed Freedom Party, public support for the party stood at an unthreatening 5 per cent of the popular vote. Few imagined then that this cocky young demagogue would - within less than 15 years - rise to become kingmaker on Austria's political scene.
After last October's Austrian federal election, the Freedom Party emerged as Austria's second-largest party, just marginally ahead of the conservative People's Party, and only a handful of points behind the Social Democrats. Since the election, the party has undoubtedly made further gains. Benefiting from the public spectacle of the two establishment parties - the Social Democrats and the People's Party - inconclusively haggling, and finally failing, over the terms of renewing their traditional coalition, the Freedom Party's popularity surged ahead. Public opinion polls suggested that in any new election under the country's system of proportional representation, Haider would secure the largest number of parliamentary seats and thus qualify for the chancellorship.
No amount of foreign invective or even sanctions can erase the truth: that Jorg Haider, who celebrated his 50th birthday on 26 January with near grotesque scenes of popular adulation on the ski slopes the following weekend, is firmly established within Austria's mainstream political life. Even though he has decided to put his lieutenants into the new coalition government and to remain at elbow's length as chief minister in his native Carinthia, nobody doubts that he will be controlling all the strings. It is a fair bet that he will pull the plug when he believes the time is ripe to force new elections that could catapult him into the chancellor's office.
Haider's success has raised widespread fears abroad that Austria is ready to embrace a refurbished right-wing extremism that carries many of the hallmarks of the old Nazi rhetoric. His anti- establishment populism, his championship of xenophobia, and his clever exploitation of narrowly based nationalist instincts have also served to renew the old question marks about Austria's latent anti-semitism and its willingness to recognise the truth about its Nazi past.
Alarmist reactions to the formation of an Austrian coalition with the Freedom Party as junior partner is hardly surprising. But western governments should have realised that international dismay, and the threat of sanctions would not dent popular support for Haider. On the contrary, it is a fair bet that Austrians' outrage and resentment against foreign attempts to interfere in what they consider to be their internal affairs will rally still more grassroots support behind him.
The alarm bells ringing in European Union capitals and in Washington are producing much the same echo in Austria today as the vociferous protests against the presidential candidacy of Kurt Waldheim in 1986. Back then, Austrians said that they could not allow the outside world to dictate who should be their head of state; and they voted for him though they knew he was a discredited liar.
This time, the country's close allies are threatening sanctions capable of harming Austria's vital interests. Its EU partners are threatening diplomatic isolation, and promising second-class treatment in Brussels and in other international institutions. The financial community is warning that business confidence may suffer and that inward investment, which has greatly benefited the Austrian economy, may slow down.
Austria's critics should have learnt from the Waldheim episode. Austrians are baulking at sensational strictures and at attempts to dictate to them about their political leadership. The more Haider is portrayed outside Austria as a Nazi sympathiser, and demonised as an out-and-out racist, the more it plays into his hands to paint himself as a misunderstood reformer.
During last year's election campaign, Haider was masterly at creating the impression that the Austrian labour market was being flooded with workers from the neighbouring countries. His supporters are still bandying around figures suggesting that half a million unemployed in Austria were having to confront half a million immigrants. In fact, unemployment last year stood at a low 4.4 per cent, numbering around 180,000 people; while the 1999 immigration quota, already trimmed to its bare bones by the outgoing coalition, stood at an all-time low of just over 8,000.
Haider has linked his campaign against Uberfremdung to pledges to halt EU enlargement. By admitting its eastern European members to the hallowed circle, Austrians would, he claimed, be overwhelmed by hordes of Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Slovakians and Slovenes, all of them exploiting the EU's open borders to invade the Austrian economic Mecca.
Austria on its own may not be able to block enlargement: but it could certainly slow down progress. This is one more reason why EU countries are so concerned over Haider's party's inclusion in the new Austrian government. However, it still remains to be seen whether as junior partner with the Austrian People's Party - which is in favour of enlargement - the Freedom Party will be forced to moderate its anti-EU posture.
Contemporary Austria is one of Europe's postwar miracles. Destitute and demoralised in 1945, and under four-power occupation until 1955, the country now ranks among the most prosperous European nations. Yet its self-confidence is under severe strain. Haider's ascendancy is a symptom of deep malaise among ordinary Austrians, fearful of losing their comfortable lifestyle and convinced that the political establishment is corrupt and has turned into a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. There is a bankruptcy of ideas among Austria's elites; the two political parties that have run the country since 1945 no longer have any outstanding leaders.
Haider's appeal stems, in part, from the weakness of the two mainstream parties. He never tires of attacking the bureaucracy, or demanding an end to Austria's Proporz system under which the mainstream parties reserve most top jobs and a sizeable number further down the ladder for their party members. He is much less of a right-wing ideologue or neo-Nazi than a power-hungry populist armed with excellent political antennae.
He knows how to cash in on his youthful good looks and his carefully chosen wardrobe as part of his image-building to win over finely targeted sectors of the electorate. The variety of his sports activities is also part of his plan to set himself up as a popular hero.
But whether he has a first-class intellect, or is merely wily, is an open question. He has demonstrably been effective at exploiting the faultlines in Austrian society. But the solutions that he advocates are either superficial or unrealistic and he has a bad habit of shooting from the hip. As for his party lieutenants, they are not impressive.
It would be far wiser for the outside world to hold its fire, and to act against Austria only if the new government actually violated the 1997 Amsterdam treaty under which the EU can suspend a member for "serious and persistent" breaches of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Unless there is evidence of this, Haider's Freedom Party will only gain in strength from the high-gear hostility of the international community.
Hella Pick's book "The Guilty Victim - Austria after the Holocaust" will be published by I B Tauris in the spring