In this small nation’s elegant capital in November 1992, newspaper headlines bannering the Clinton presidential victory temporarily displaced the local story of the moment: a decisive political coup by Jörg Haider, leader of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Although it is quite clear that Austria’s status quo, socialist-conservative, “Red-Black” alliance has functioned effectively as a patronage machine, one longtime political observer notes that “it appears ineffectual, even paralyzed, when faced with larger political issues, especially immigration.” Amid a general economic downturn throughout Europe, this latter issue was tackled head-on by Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in late October 1992, when it proposed a national referendum: a 12-point petition on the key issues of asylum, immigration, and multicultural education. This startling coup reverberated within the nation’s parliament over the next several months and subsequently shaped a spring constitutional debate, forcing a vote to address these critical national concerns.
With Germany, its neighbor to the north, badly shaken by street violence and arson since the beginning of the 1990’s, Austria’s Nationalrat had for many months ignored the need to address the troubling fact that this once powerful but now greatly diminished middle European nation would be drawn into the maelstrom of Continental violence, either incipient or overt. Proclaiming that the national mood was total gekippt (completely overturned), the popular weekly news magazine Profil reported last September that two-thirds of a cross-section of Austria’s populace felt that Rostock-style neo-Nazi flames could, in fact, leap across the border.
On November 2,1992—the very eve of the U.S. election— amid headlines of attacks on foreigners and a leadership crisis in Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party chief formally promulgated his manifesto. Three days later, front-page photos showed an apparently significant conversation between Haider and Austrian President Thomas Klestil (a member of the ruling conservative party) at the Hofburg (the occasion being a 60th birthday celebration for Kurt Waldheim’s recently elected replacement). Although it has been vigorously denied, speculation was rife that Klestil was trying to stave off Haider’s then threatened 12-point petition drive.
Haider’s challenge to the ruling coalition was a comprehensive proposal proffered as salve for Austrian qualms about the Ausländer Problem. The referendum once again raised the question of whether it would be in the nation’s best interest to join the European Community. Specifically, what became known as the Österreich zuerst (“Austria First”) manifesto declared that Austria was “not an immigrant society” and called for illegal immigrants to be returned to their native countries unless their claims for asylum could be established as extending beyond economic hardship. This declaration was coupled with a demand for tighter restrictions on welfare benefits for those who had recently entered the country. Thus, before Germany or France, Austria tackled the issue of restricting asylum, largely because of the pressure exerted by its third largest political party.
The political centerpiece of the FPÖ manifesto put forth last November urged a constitutional declaration that Austria was no longer open to large-scale foreign immigration. By obtaining a required minimum of 100,000 signatures, the 12-point program would be placed directly before the country’s parliament. The proposal, in particular, called for a complete cessation of non-asylum immigration, expulsion of those foreigners convicted of crimes, the reinforcement of border patrols against illegal immigration, the compulsory carrying of identity documents by foreigners, a 30-percent ceiling on the number of foreign children in any classroom within Austrian state schools, and tests of German language proficiency for pupils. The last two points strike directly at what is perhaps the most critical issue agitating the Austrian populace. Imagine the following scenario, feasible under current multicultural educational policies: German-speaking parents receive a letter from their child’s school requesting permission to have instruction occur in Turkish, that being the native tongue of the majority of pupils. In fact, such an incident occurred in one of Vienna’s neighborhood schools, where in at least three districts German-speaking children are in the minority.
Roused from their lethargy, both the chancellor and president of Austria (one socialist, the other of the traditional conservative camp) belatedly offered to negotiate some of the issues raised by the proposed referendum. In the weeks following, a complex of maneuvers took place that reflected a stark reality of contemporary Austrian politics: a third party setting the pace for national debate and policy.
Although opposition to the Haider 12-point mandate was predictable, what was less expected was the wholesale denunciation of him by this country’s influential Roman Catholic clergy. Bishops and archbishops queued up to denounce the referendum as “inhumane,” “dangerous,” “impractical,” and possibly damaging to Austria’s social stability. Haider’s demand for a constitutional declaration that Austria is not open to unlimited immigration was vilified by his opponents as incompatible with the nation’s international obligations as a signatory to the Treaty of the European Economic Area, as well as with future membership in the E.G.
The FPÖ petition was also subjected to critical analysis by Austria’s legal experts. A prominent professor writing in Der Standard (Vienna’s independent liberal daily newspaper) asserts that “anyone [who] examines the proposals in detail must doubt the sincerity behind his intentions.” It was further claimed that the remaining components of the so-called manifesto are already part of existing Austrian law.
Yet what critics have labeled Haiders Kampf manifested concrete results as early as June 1992 when, under pressure from the Freedom Party, parliament passed a new law tightening regulations on Eastern European refugees arriving for purely economic reasons. In response, Hungary agreed to receive immigrants rejected at the border. Thus, in the first ten months of 1992 only 15,155 asylum-seekers registered in Austria, compared to the 1991 figure of 27,000. Another 40,000, however, received temporary shelter, as well as an additional 4,500 refugees from the Balkans. Moreover, on November 17, 1992, another 175 Muslim war refugees from Bosnia were admitted after the British government refused to accept them, despite the pleas of a British charity organization.
Although reliable figures on illegal immigrants are impossible to come by, estimates of new refugees run as high as 80,000—a proportion markedly higher than in Germany, considering Austria’s total population of just 7.5 million. In mid-1992, the Austrian Central Bureau of Statistics released a report that estimated that 573,000 foreigners reside in the nation: 7.3 percent of the population.
Just weeks after he dropped his political bombshell over immigration, an Austrian newsmagazine reported that Haider had personally aided seven Bosnian refugees by providing them with a farmhouse on his Carinthian estate (the unfriendly press announcement stressed that the cottage lacked electricity and hot water). The fact that the men were lumberjacks who had not registered with local police, as is required by Austrian law, was used to suggest that the Freedom Party’s leader was being hypocritical. His wife was said to be “outraged” that a private act of charity should be thus misunderstood.
As the swirl of controversy centering on the FPÖ leader continued, a newly published and highly critical biography of Haider climbed to the best-seller list. Written by a journalist for the tabloid Der Kurier, the book queried, “Gibt es Rezepte gegen Haider?” (Are there remedies against Haider?) The answer continued to center on painting the Freedom Party leader as a closet fascist or neo-Nazi. When Jewish graves in the city of Eisenstadt were desecrated on the anniversary of Kristallnacht last year, the slogan “Sieg Haider” was splashed across a tombstone; the opposition party leaders and press laid the blame for the vandalism at the feet of the FPÖ leader. While generally refusing to rise to such bait, in this case Haider denounced the incident, shifting blame onto the coalition government with the warning that prejudice and racism would increase unless the government could produce an effective policy to deal with the influx of foreigners.
However, the relentless stereotyping of the Freedom Party and its head as constituting a vanguard of racism continued unabated. “The real purpose of Haider’s referendum démarche,” alleged yet another media critic, “is to awaken popular expectations of harsh, anti-foreigner measures and to strengthen the resistance of that large part of the population that opposes Austrian entry into the E.G.” The result would be that the FPÖ might reap dividends, being seen as the articulator of popular anti-E.G. feelings and the champion of those set to make Austria a bastion against an expected increase in immigration from war-torn and poverty-stricken southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Organized as a response to the “Austria First” referendum, a candlelight demonstration was held last January at the historic Heldenplatz where Adolph Hitler had received the rhythmic “Sieg Heil” from 100,000 Viennese in March 1938. An estimated 200,000 congregated in what was described as a solemn vigil against “racism” and “anti-Ausländer” politics. Haider himself dismissed the event as an invalid reflection of public sentiments, telling the New York Times that “Austrians don’t want to feel like strangers in their own land.”
While the decidedly pro-ruling coalition Radio Austria International describes Haider as “fanning the flames of xenophobia latent in a citizenry concerned at the huge influx of foreigners,” one might also conclude that he is simply reflecting a solid base of public opinion. In fact, this is precisely the case. Austrian national surveys since 1988 demonstrate that a steady rise in popular opinion opposing immigration has coincided with a decided drop in support for E.G. membership. A Gallup poll conducted in October 1992 reported that 76 percent of Austrians opposed admission of any new immigrants. Thus, Haider’s opponents had good reason to fear that he might obtain not merely the 100,000 signatures needed to insure the parliamentary debate on the issue but rather—as predicted by the astute head of the Austrian Gallup polling organization—”as many as one million!”
On January 31, Austrians expressed their views on the Haider Volksbegehren: 417,000 signatures were gathered, representing 7.4 percent of the 5.6 million electorate. The “spin” given to the “Austria First” referendum results was that the “radical right” in that nation had been given a resounding defeat, with the European inquiring: “Is Austrian racism now in retreat?” In the immediate wake of the voting results, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung spoke of the “personal defeat” for Haider and called the outcome a “disaster.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung claimed that Haider’s “latest lasso-swing at the voters” had “nearly toppled him from his high horse.” Austria Today wondered whether “populism” had reached “its limits.” Clearly, Haider erred by placing the victory hurdle of the referendum too high, a violation of a basic principle of politics: never set a goal you may not achieve (a parallel to the 1992 Buchanan campaign in the wake of the initial New Hampshire primary returns).
In fact, as many of his opponents soon began to acknowledge, the outcome of the January referendum was far from a defeat for Jörg Haider. Critical to the results were the peculiar conditions under which the voting took place. Rather than by the secret ballot of a conventional election, petition signatures were obtained in open venues such as banks, public offices, and even, in some cases, private residences and churches. A number of Catholic Church prelates had gone on record opposing the petition drive. Moreover, indications were that employees and union members were often subject to intimidation regarding their support for the Haider referendum. Certainly the fact that a person was seen going to the balloting location at all (the process involved signing one’s name and address in contrast to a conventional referendum where one votes yes or no) placed the individual’s decision in the public eye.
Within three days of the petition voting, a dramatic event transpired, underscoring a fissure within the ranks of the FPÖ. Although the party leadership had backed the “Austria First” mandate in November 1992 by a vote of 93 to one, in opposition to the proposal was parliamentary leader Heide Schmidt, the party’s popular former candidate for Austria’s presidency. Schmidt, along with four renegade colleagues —including a longtime Haider associate and former defense minister of Austria—chose to strike out on their own. In February of this year, the “Liberal Forum” was established as a new political party. Schmidt, the protégée—who some even term the “creation” of Jörg Haider—had no doubt been emboldened by her personal popularity and vote-attracting ability during the presidential election one year earlier.
The new breakaway political faction confronted both the Freedom Party and the ruling coalition with a technical and political quandary. Schmidt, who was not only deputy party leader but also third president of the parliament (second deputy speaker) had privately complained about Haider’s autocratic leadership style. In turn, Haider had seen Schmidt as increasingly developing a constituency derived strictly from attraction to her persona and not the party’s agenda. He described her action as a welcome “throwing off of ballast.” A loss of five MP’s from the FPÖ’s 33 would be one thing, but instead the rebel group indicated they had no intention of simply vacating these seats; they would retain their places. According to the Austrian constitution, parliamentary members serve by virtue of a vote of their peers in the Nationalrat. Moreover, according to parliament’s own rules, any five MP’s can form a Klub, that is, an official political group. Furthermore, since a majority of the parliament must approve such a Klub only if its members derive from several political parties, the Liberal Forum was seated and accorded office space by simple application to the parliament. In response, Haider threatened to divide his remaining 28 MP’s into five different Klubs, a maneuver he withdrew because he did not wish to have taxpayers incur the costs that would thereby result.
The initial test of the new party came in the June regional elections in so-called Lower Austria, a geographic area lying north of Carinthia and west of Vienna. Its 1.2 million voters offered the first election battle between the newly divided forces of Haider and Schmidt. From the beginning, the personalities of the FPÖ leader and his former party colleague dominated the magazine pages and televised debates. When the results were in, despite its absence of any formal organization and its fielding of candidates at the last minute, the Liberales Forum had emerged as a viable entity. What was also clear is that the popularity of the two dominant Austrian parties, the socialists and conservatives, had continued to erode. By attaining 5.1 percent of the vote, it appeared likely that the new party would be able to enter the national parliamentary elections slated for the fall of 1994, as 5 percent nationwide is required to qualify.
Despite the attention directed to Heide Schmidt’s Klub, the biggest gainer among Austria’s parties was the FPÖ: the Haider-led contingent boosted its total by nearly three percent, while both major parties each fell by the same figure. In reviewing the results of what Profil magazine termed the “historische Stunde” for Haider and Schmidt, a dual constituency was identified: the former increasingly centered on the “working-class,” erstwhile socialist, voter, while the latter drew from the “yuppie” contingency, particularly from professional and urban women. In fact, the outcome seems tied to the peculiar election rules in Austria that permit residents to vote in more than one local election. Many wealthy Viennese who also have summer homes in Lower Austria thus carried their urban views to this mainly rural and small-town milieu.
When 1993 began, academic analysts and the world media hinted that Jörg Haider had reached his political apex. Ironically, Schmidt, as the pupil of Haider, appears to have learned well the lessons of populist-style politics, and she now stands to be an even more “anti-establishment” and underdog figure than her mentor. She has her own constituency apart from Haider’s, and while in her presidential election bid she lost one-third of loyal FPÖ supporters she gained a like proportion of followers from outside the regular party ranks. Yet, many observers still see little substance to her Liberal Forum.
Within the FPÖ, a fissure has developed exposing the fault line that has always divided its traditional nationalist wing from its “economically liberal” sector (the latter strongly in favor of E.C. membership, the former resistant). Such nationalist opposition threatens to alienate major sectors of the business community. Haider himself may have lost support because of his “hard line” on E.C. membership: he urges Austria not to be an eager supplicant, but to hold out for tough negotiations on such topics as environmental standards, immigration, and agricultural policies.
What was so remarkable at the outset of Haider’s démarche on the immigration issue was the eagerness of the socialist and conservative party leaders to meet with Haider to discuss his 12 points so as to prevent the actual circulation of the initiative. Failing this, the resultant legislative wrangling has yet to lead to any action; even if it were to, the FPÖ could claim credit for it. While Austria’s chancellor, Franz Vranitsky, continues to dismiss Haider as a “populist,” and political scientist Anton Pelinka warns of a “populist temptation,” no one appears to dispute Haider’s declaration that the FPÖ was the first to “see the problem” of the Ausländer onslaught.
It is Haider’s ability to reflect the concerns of the “little person” that makes his new direction of constituency-building so potentially significant. By going after the large and highly disaffected working and lower-middle class, he can continue to serve as the “eat among the pigeons.” Here, the question of his tenacity at exposing political corruption may be a far more important base of his support than even the question of foreign workers or the E.G. One example will suffice. When controversy recently arose over the top-level managers at the Austrian National Bank who draw inflated salaries and perks, only after Haider pressed for changes did any action come about. As one Austrian industrial leader explained: “Every day there is a political corruption scandal. Scarcely a public works contract is awarded without subsequent revelations that there was bribery involved. My employees look at the fat eats in the parliament and town hall and they want somebody to go in there and clean it up.”
No longer on a smooth trajectory of political good fortune, Jörg Haider will run (elections are tentatively scheduled for this fall) for a key political post he has held before: governor of the province of Carinthia, his home constituency. From here Haider will test his strength and ability to reach beyond what some see as the ceiling he and his party have now achieved— a firm national following of 20 percent.
Certainly the year 1994 with its parliamentary elections will prove to be a pivotal one for the FPÖ, although Haider’s inner circle has deferred until 1998 the hoped-for goal of seeing him named chancellor of Austria. With Europe divided and weak in political will, what is anticipated for the mid-1990’s in this small nation is an internal debate on national identity in terms of economic and cultural goals. It offers a prism through which we may view Europe as it gropes toward a new political consciousness.