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By Shadia Nasralla and Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's ruling Social Democrats are responding to rising anti-establishment sentiment in a way that would be unthinkable in most European nations - by moving towards lifting a self-imposed ban on coalitions with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).
As elsewhere in Europe, the centre-left has in recent years lost voters to an anti-Islam, anti-immigration party. The FPO now regularly tops Austrian opinion polls with support of more than 30 percent, surpassing even levels seen around 2000 when it entered a national coalition that lasted for several years.
But even if the Social Democrats are able to overtake the FPO in the next parliamentary election due within about 18 months, they will have few options. To form a government, they would most likely need to continue an unpopular alliance with the conservative People's Party or start a new one with the FPO.
With that in mind, the Social Democrats (SPO) are drawing up a list of conditions that any coalition partner would have to meet, which would effectively end the ban put in place 30 years ago. The aim is also to help unite a party still deeply divided over whether to do business with the far right.
"It will at least make it a discussion focussed on the issues rather than emotion," said Peter Kaiser, SPO governor of the province of Carinthia, who heads the party's working group in charge of the project.
"Everyone was annoyed by all the debate around a single issue: can we (work) with the FPO or not?" he told Reuters.
Although work on what is known as the "catalogue of criteria" is continuing, Kaiser said it included fundamental values such as supporting the European Union and the welfare state, as well as women's equal status in society.
Such broad principles are unlikely to prevent a coalition with the FPO. In 2000, the preamble to a coalition pact between the FPO and the People's Party voiced support for the EU and human rights to allay similar concerns.
That coalition prompted street protests and was marked by several corruption scandals but also by achievements including pension reform. Within three years, however, support for the FPO had halved as internal disputes grew, and FPO leaders including the charismatic Joerg Haider later left the fold.
The fact the FPO has been in national government before and has been a prominent feature of the Austrian political landscape for decades makes talk of a possible coalition slightly less toxic than it would be for similar parties in other countries.
In France, a "republican front" among mainstream parties against Marine Le Pen's National Front has eroded since her father was trounced in the second round of the presidential election in 2002.
Polls still suggest, however, that she will be soundly defeated in next month's presidential run-off, and it would be taboo for the centre-left Socialist Party to consider a coalition with the National Front.
Before last month's Dutch parliamentary election, all major mainstream parties ruled out joining a coalition that included the far-right PVV, saying anti-Islam remarks by its leader Geert Wilders had become too extreme. The mainstream conservatives won the election but the PVV scored big gains to finish second.
In contrast with those countries, two centrist parties have dominated Austrian politics for the past 70 years, often governing together in coalition. Of the 29 governments since World War Two, 20 have included the SPO.
"Social Democracy in Austria has become accustomed to being in government, which leads to being willing to pay a higher price (to stay in power) than is perhaps the case in France," political analyst Anton Pelinka said.
"THE VOTER IS ALWAYS RIGHT"
SPO Chancellor Christian Kern's government is implementing several law-and-order measures meant to eat into FPO support, including a ban on Muslim face-covering veils and a tightening of immigration rules.
At the same time, he has taken steps towards treating the FPO like any other party, including taking part in a radio debate with its leader last November. "We have never had such a friendly discussion," Kern said at the time. "In terms of content, however, at least medium-sized worlds divide us."
The FPO says it is open to forming coalitions with all parties, including the SPO.
Within the SPO, however, debate continues to rage on whether doing business with the FPO is a price worth paying for power.
"What is the point of being in the government if we then implement FPO policies?" said Julia Herr, head of Socialist Youth, a left-wing group connected to the party, who wants more specific criteria, like support for a wealth tax.
"I think the SPO is gambling away its credibility," she said, referring to the fact that in one province, Burgenland, the SPO and FPO have been in coalition since 2015.
For now, however, momentum is with pragmatists like Burgenland's governor, Hans Niessl. His SPO-FPO government has approved a cap on benefits for recent immigrants and placed added emphasis on security in Burgenland, which borders Hungary.
"The voter is always right. We practice majority politics," he said in an interview, adding that in his experience in Burgenland, voters did not object to the SPO working with the FPO. "Where's the harm?"
(Additional reporting by Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich and Kirsti Knolle in Vienna, writing by Francois Murphy; editing by Mark Heinrich)