Austrian Freedom Party leader shrugs off backlash at “new Jews” remark

March 24, 2012

(Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache holds the Austrian flag in his office in Vienna March 21, 2012. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger )

Appearing to make light of the Holocaust would be the kiss of death for most European politicians, but for Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache it has meant little more than a temporary dip in his popularity.

The 42-year-old leader of the Freedom Party has bounced back in opinion polls after a barrage of criticism in January for reportedly likening attacks on him and his backers to treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Speaking to Reuters from his office overlooking parliament, the dark-tanned former dental technician denounced the whole affair as a political plot against him and said he was confident heading into an election next year, when nearly one in three voters could reward his party for its opposition to euro zone bailouts and a tough stance on immigration.

“We are ready to take responsibility and play a role in government,” said Strache, who took over as head of the Freedom Party in 2005 after longtime leader Joerg Haider jumped ship to head a splinter party. “But I think we can only break the hold on power of the ruling coalition if we emerge as the strongest party.”

More than two years into the euro zone’s debt crisis, parties opposed to the bloc’s rescues of weak southern member states have gained ground in countries including Finland and the Netherlands, but none have wielded enough power to stop the bailouts or arrest the momentum towards closer economic integration.

Strache is one of the few politicians in Europe with a chance of changing that.

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