A boon to Austria’s far-right

Don’t celebrate: Jorg Haider’s death may actually strengthen Austria’s extremists.


What a way to go. Like Grace Kelly, Isadora Duncan and Princess Di before him, Jorg Haider met his death last week in a high-speed car crash. It was a fittingly dramatic exit for the handsome poster-boy of Austrian prejudice who, with his perma-tan and gelled hair, had brought a touch of glamour back to the far-right.

Indeed, coming just two weeks after his political comeback - when the far-right won nearly a third of the vote in the Austrian elections - his death has a bio-pic quality that has captured the imagination of the Austrian public.

Even the country's Social Democrat president, Heinz Fischer, said he felt "deeply affected" by Haider's sudden death at 58, calling him a "politician of great talent".

No such half-measures for those closer politically to Haider, who led the Alliance for Austria's Future at the time of his death. "The sun has fallen from the sky," sobbed Gerhard Dörfler, Haider's deputy as governor of the province of Carinthia. "For us, this is the end of the world," said Stefan Petzner, the party's secretary general - again, a slight exaggeration, since within 24 hours he had replaced his late boss as head of the party.

Haider certainly stirred strong feelings during his life, as a result of his populist, anti-establishment message, heavily flavoured as it was with anti-immigrant and anti-European Union sentiment, not to mention a heavy dose of Nazi apologism.

Whether praising the employment policies of the Third Reich, describing SS veterans as "decent people of good character" or dismissing concentration camps as mere "punishment camps", his views apparently resonated with an ever increasing minority of his fellow Austrians.

It does not seem to be one of those countries which has processed its past historical experience into the national consciousness. Indeed, it has sometimes excelled in self-deception, as in the case of former president Kurt Waldheim, who conveniently forgot to mention certain details of his Wehrmacht past.

Austrians sometimes seem to view themselves as the first victims of National Socialism. Haider himself - the son of parents who were both enthusiastic Nazis and who lived on an estate previously owned by Austrian Jews who fled the Nazis - seemed to articulate this odd victimhood particularly effectively. But it would be unfair to cast Austria as a country of extreme racists and xenophobes.

The astonishing results of last month's election had more complex origins, in part a protest vote against the ineptitude of the two mainstream parties. The suffocating, bureaucratic alliance between the conservative, Catholic People's Party and the centre-left Social Democratic Party has dominated Austrian politics since 1945, yet failed even to manage to form a functioning government, the previous coalition having collapsed in June.

When, in 1999, Haider's Freedom Party won 28 per cent of the vote, they were invited to join a government coalition, a decision which led to global outrage and de facto sanctions from the European Union, with Israel withdrawing its ambassador from Vienna.

His new party was in part an attempt to reposition him in a more moderate position. But the 2005 split was also down to personal rivalry with Heinz-Christian Strache, his successor as Freedom Party leader.

That is where his sudden death could have political consequences. It was personal enmity rather than any great ideological differences that made an alliance between the two far-right factions unlikely. A pact between the two right-wing parties would make them the second strongest force in Austrian politics, whether within government or opposition.

It remains to be seen whether Haider's 27-year-old successor, or the even more virulently anti-immigration Strache, have the charisma and political nous to consolidate their position. But it seems the groundswell of support for the politics of xenophobia is there. All it needs to realise it is another film-star fascist to replace Haider after his high-speed exit.

Daniella Peled is the JC's foreign editor.

    Last updated: 12:25pm, October 16 2008

    COMMENTS

    joemillis

    Thu, 10/16/2008 - 21:31

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    The German-speaking Austrians have a word for it: schadenfreude, and there's nowt wrong with it