Haider: The Death of a Populist

Jörg Haider, the best known Austrian politician, was killed in a car crash on October 11. His death marks the end of a colorful career untypical for a “far-Right” figure. Armani-clad fitness fanatic, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pal with a permanent tan, Haider cut a figure vastly different from the bland establishmentarians who have ran Austria for decades. Villified by the European elite class as a neo-Nazi anti-Semite, he was a talented man of uncertain principles, great ambition, and dubious judgment.

Haider died only weeks after his Alliance for the Future of Austria (Bündnis Zukunft Österreich, BZÖ) won an impressive 11 percent of the vote in the general election, while the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) – which he had led from 1986 until 2000, and from which he split in 2005 – gained 18 per cent. It was the best result for Austria’s opponents of rampant immigration and EU integration in the history of the Republic

Born in 1950 to a lower-middle-class family in Upper Austria, Haider never forgot various indignities that his parents suffered after the war for alleged Nazi sympathies. Common folks like they took the rap for the “really big Nazis,” he later complained.

Academically brilliant and popular among peers, in his teens Haider excelled as an actor in school plays. This talent he put to ample use in later years: in the course of a single day he was known to change three or four outfits, from the traditional Austrian jacket to suit-and-tie to jeans and sweater, depending on the audience. He also had a gift for rhetoric, winning a debating contest at 16 in support of the motion that Austrians are in fact German.

After obtaining his law degree in Vienna Haider lectured briefly in constitutional law, but politics was always his true vocation – and the Freedom Party, which he joined in 1976, seemed the obvious choice for a man with his views. Founded in 1955, for decades the FPO combined pan-Germanism and what might be called Central European libertarianism. It was by no means a “far-Right” political force when Haider joined, but its position on the issue of national identity attracted him. Haider soon became the leader of the FPÖ youth movement and quickly rose through the ranks. By 1979 he was the youngest parliamentary deputy ever in the Austrian Republic.

In the early 1980s Haider grew impatient with the party leadership, which he regarded as too soft on immigration, wishy-washy on national identity or sovereignty threatened from Brussels, and resigned to single-digit election results. By 1983, after he became party chairman in the southern province of Carinthia, Haider became openly critical of the FPÖ national leadership. Three years later he staged a successful coup at the party convention against its leader, Norbert Steger, a “moderate” who was at that time Austria’s vice-chancellor in coalition with the Socialists (SPÖ). Haider’s Young Turks were enthusiastic. The new spirit was captured in a party activist’s quip, “With Haider I’d march into Russia again, but with Steger I would not even go on holiday.”

In 1989 Haider broke the Socialists’ traditional hold on Carinthia by winning 29 percent of the local vote, formed a coalition with the ÖVP, and was elected Landeshauptmann (or governor) of the province. His tenure is remembered mainly for a 1991 debate in the provincial assembly at Klagenfurt that resulted in his resignation. A Socialist deputy attacked Haider’s scheme to cut unemployment payments for recipients he described as “freeloaders,” claiming it was similar to forced work placement in the Nazi era. “It would not be like the Third Reich,” Haider replied, “because the Third Reich developed a proper employment policy, which your government in Vienna has not once produced.” In addition to causing Haider’s resignation, this exchange also prompted the ÖVP to swith partners and enter a coalition with the SPÖ.

In the course of a national election campaign in 1995, Haider met a group of SS veterans, of whom he said: “There are still decent people of good character who also stick to their convictions, despite the greatest opposition, and have remained true to their convictions until today.” He made a sudden U-turn on the issue of national identity during that same campaign, however, announcing that pan-Germanism was finished and that he was an “Austrian patriot.” Somewhat bizarrely, at that time Haider also described himself as a follower of Newt Gingrich, whose “Contract With America” he used in his manifesto. The electorate was not enthused.

Four years later Haider focused on social issues and immigration – and improved his party’s standing dramatically, gaining 27 percent of the vote. The FPÖ formed the ruling coalition with the People’s Party, although Haider himself was not a member of the new government (in early 1999 he was re-elected the governor of Carinthia). The move nevertheless caused an uproar in Brussels: the European Union decided to impose sanctions on Austria even before the government had announced its program. “There is a lot of excitement in the European chicken pen,” Haider quipped, “and the fox hasn’t even got in.”

This episode merits some attention because it reveals in a raw form the mix of authoritarianism and hypocrisy characteristic of Brussels. On January 31, 2000, the European Union informed Austria that it would face boycott if its new government included the FPÖ. On February 4 Chancellor Schuessel nevertheless went ahead and brought members of the Freedom Party into his coalition. He was acting in full accord with the rules of parliamentary democracy: the new government had a clear majority of 104 out of 183 parliamentary deputies. EU governments duly severed all bilateral political contacts with the Austrian government.  They also restricted the promotion of Austrians at EU headquarters and ignored Austrian ministers at EU meetings. The measures also included ban on school trips, cultural exchanges and military exercises. The U.S. joined the bandwagon and the State Department called Ambassador Kathryn Hall back to Washington for “consultations.”

Although the measures had no impact on the lives of ordinary Austrians, they triggered a backlash among the Austrian public. They also caused an outcry in some smaller EU nations – notably Denmark – fearful of the domination of more powerful members, such as France, which pushed for punitive measures. For months thereafter the EU’s Portuguese presidency maintained that the sanctions would remain, but after the EU foreign ministers’ Azores meeting in June 2000 it was obvious that the embargo could not be sustained.

The EU sanctions were illegal because the decision to apply them was taken outside the EU structures and without due process: the Austrian government was not allowed have its point of view heard before the other members states took action against it.  The EU action was doubly contentious in view of the fact that Haider’s party was democratically elected and that it had not done or said anything contrary to Austria’s constitution or European law. Even those Austrians not sympathetic to Haider came to see Brussels’ heavy-handedness as an insult to their country.

By that time Haider’s ambiguous statements on the Third Reich had ceased to be part of his politically operative vocabulary. On the other hand, his main message – that there are too many foreigners in Austria and that immigration threatens the country’s economy and traditional ethnic composition – is even more valid today than a decade ago. That message is now shared by two parties. One of them (FPÖ) Haider led to national prominence; the other (BZÖ) he created from scratch. They command 29 percent of the electorate between them, but were unlikely to cooperate because of the bitter personal animosity between Haider and the current FPÖ leader and former Haider protégé Heinz-Christian Strache. Ironically, the Austrian nationalist Right may be better poised to achieve unity that has eluded it for years now that its poster boy is no longer with us.

“For us, it’s the end of the world,” a visibly distressed spokesman from Haider’s party, Stefan Petzner, told the press; “Joerg Haider was a politician who changed the face of politics in this country.”

The end of the world it certainly is not: nearly 50 percent of under-30s now support either Heider’s original party or the one he founded three years ago and led at the time of his death. Joerg Haider’s legacy will live on for many years to come.

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