Austria Joerg Haider’s Legacy
The Austrian right-wing politician Jörg Haider died in a Hollywood-style crash October 11. Driving alone, he lost control while passing another car and went off the road near his beloved town of Klagenfurt. Yes, he was traveling 140 kilometers per hour–twice the legal limit–but all his life Haider pushed limits. We can assume that he died pleased with himself–once again, at the center of political attention.
In the recent elections in Austria Haider’s splinter party BZOe (Alliance for Austria’s Future that he had established in 2005) got an incredible 11 percent of the votes. Together with his original FPOe (Austrian Freedom party), with 18 percent of votes, the Austrian far right had its strongest showing ever, capturing almost 30 percent. In comparison, the two big parties, the center-left Socialist Democratic Party of Austria (SPOe) drew 30 percent and the center-right Austria People’s party (OeVP) did even worse, with 25.6 percent.
For this success Haider had worked long and hard–but in his own way, using his charisma and the populist, pro-Nazi rhetoric for which he was infamous. In 2000, he captured worldwide attention when his party almost became a coalition partner in the government. He was called the “King of Carinthia,” having led that southern province off and on for more than twenty years. But at the same time, one could say that he was a kind of a pop star, a theater performer, an entertainer.
Tanned and muscular, with a constant grin on his face, Haider loved a stage, any stage–sporting event, disco, beer festival, television studio or political rostrum. At fancy-dress balls, he was known to dress up as a clown or as Robin Hood. In this way he seemed a very modern politician, though this behavior had more to do with the tradition of Viennese operetta.
A born actor, some would say Haider missed his true calling. But more than fame, he wanted power–and would do just about anything to get it. If Nazi rhetoric worked, he would use it. He praised SS troops as respectable men, and Hitler for his employment policy. He railed against immigrants and against the European Union, all the while defining himself as nothing more than an “Austrian patriot.” He know how to manipulate the fears of his countrymen and told them what they wanted to hear, like the importance of being master of one’s own country. Haider also promised jobs, money and the preservation of “Austrian traditions.”
At heart, Haider was an opportunist, not an ideologue, promising one thing today and another the next. But over time, he mellowed. In the latest election this autumn he came out with more social criticism than ideological rhetoric.
Many of the Austrians who voted for Haider were seduced by his words. However, his faithful supporters alone could not have brought him to political prominence. Many Austrian voters had simply simply had enough of two big immobile and bureaucratic parties, two dinosaurs that have dominated politics ever since 1945. The success of the far-right parties springs from voter frustration with political immobility and inertia. Austrians no longer care about Nazi ideals–but they are, like so many others, worried about immigration, globalization and the expansion of the European Union. And that provides an opening for far-right populists like Haider.
After his burial–attended by 30,000 people–and all the nice things said about him, Haider leaves a worrisome legacy. Before his death he made a peace with the new leader of FPOe , young (38) Heinz-Christian Strache. This is important, as the right-wing common interest was and still is to prevent the grand coalition of moderates. Controlling together almost a third of the Parliament, Haider’s and Strache’s parties are a force to consider. The current worldwide financial crisis will feed further fears of ordinary people.
This could become a fertile soil for right-wing extremism. Haider contributed to the growth of this kind of populism in Europe, West and East alike. In that sense, he has left an extraordinary, if not exquisite, political corpse.