VIENNA Austrian far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache is determined to stop the Alpine republic from bailing out poorer euro zone nations, even if it costs him a place in the next government.
Strache said his Freedom Party (FPO), long led by the late Joerg Haider, will not join a coalition after a September 29 parliamentary election unless there is a referendum on Austria's participation in the European Stability Mechanism, which provides rescue funds to backstop ailing euro zone members.
Strache is betting that opposition in prosperous Austria to more bailouts, tied to the party's core anti-immigration platform, will lift it above the 20 percent it is now polling.
That could challenge the pro-European centrist coalition of Social Democrats (SPO) and conservative People's Party (OVP), the so-called "red-black" alliance of parties that have dominated Austrian politics since World War Two.
"The people must have the choice," said Strache, leaning forward with a piercing blue-eyed stare and jabbing his finger in an interview with Reuters and Wiener Zeitung this week in his penthouse office overlooking parliament.
Strache's is not the only far-right party in Europe to capitalise on growing anti-euro sentiment. For the first time a new German anti-euro party cleared the 5 percent threshold for entering parliament in an opinion poll.
But by calling for a referendum on the ERM - the 700 billion euro ($935 billion) rescue fund to which Austria has pledged 19.5 billion euros and has to pay 2.2 billion up front - the 44-year-old is taking a big gamble eight years after taking the helm of the FPO from Haider, who died in a 2008 car crash.
Strache, a former dental technician, has something of the charisma of Haider, whose extreme-right positions provoked EU sanctions against Austria during a period in government in 2000.
But Strache rejects the legacy of the founder of modern Austrian right-wing populism, whose involvement in a series of scandals exposed after his death caused a collapse in the FPO vote in its heartland this year.
Still, Strache's more moderate tone - "pro-Austrian" rather than anti-foreigner - and his explicit rejection of neo-Nazi ties despite party members' opportunistic use of its symbolism, have done little to bring him closer to the main parties.
The SPO, running at around 28 percent in opinion polls, has ruled out any deal with the FPO. The leader of the OVP, scoring around 25 percent, has not gone quite so far but has said he cannot co-rule with an anti-euro party.
NEVER SAY NEVER
Strache's appropriation of the phrase "Love thy neighbour" as a campaign slogan - to which he adds: "For me, this means our Austrians" - has been condemned by the Catholic church, which is dominant in Austria, as well as by other religious leaders.
And the right-wing vote has been split by the arrival of industrialist Frank Stronach's party, equally eurosceptic but without the anti-immigration agenda. It polls around 9 percent.
Strache's best chance of entering government is that the OVP's result is so poor that it forces out its leader, Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, creating the opportunity for new personal dynamics.
"Never say never," said Strache. "The voter always decides, and if the voters give us a boost towards 30 percent or over 30 percent, it will not be possible to stop us from assuming our responsibility in the government."
The FPO, which won 18 percent in a 2008 parliamentary election, tends to outperform what opinion polls predict.
It could win enough votes to form a coalition with the OVP and Stronach, perhaps with smaller liberal parties, the BZO and the Neos, if the small parties make it into parliament.
For now, Strache - as combative in an interview as he is on a podium - dismisses Stronach's agenda as a "show programme" whose only raison d'etre is to shore up the SPO and OVP if they do not win enough votes for a two-way coalition.
He said: "I am the only one who wants to break up and change this red-black system." ($1 = 0.7492 euros)
(editing by Elizabeth Piper)