The death of Joerg Haider, a controversial and charismatic right-wing politician in Austria,
has removed one of the country’s key players at a time of political turmoil following unprecedented far-right gains in last month’s general elections.
Haider, 58, was killed early Saturday when he lost control of his car and crashed while passing
another vehicle at nearly 90 mph — twice the posted speed limit.
“For us it’s the end of the world,” Stefan Petzner, a spokesman for Haider’s Alliance for
Austria’s Future party, tearfully told reporters. “Joerg Haider was a politician who changed the face of
politics in this country.”
Indeed, though he didn’t hold national office, Haider was arguably Austria’s best-known — and most polarizing — political figure. At the time of his death he was the governor of the Carinthia province.
Known for his anti-immigrant and anti-European Union policies, Haider was a populist who played on voter
frustration with the status quo and an instinctive political animal who knew how to tailor his rhetoric,
appearance and demeanor to suit his target audiences.
“By constantly attacking Austria’s ruling elite and reminding working-class voters that they were
getting precious little indeed from this system, Haider not only made his party a major player, he
single-handedly forced the ruling elites to begin tacking ever rightwards,” said Edward Serotta,
the director of Centropa, a Vienna-based research institute on Jewish life in Central Europe.
Handsome, athletic and perpetually sun-tanned, Haider was dubbed the “yuppie fascist” by critics. The
son of Nazi supporters, he won international notoriety in the 1990s with statements apparently praising the Hitler regime.
Haider led the far-right Freedom Party, or FPO, from 1986 to 2005, when he broke away to form the
Alliance. Under his leadership the FPO won 27 percent of the vote in 1999, enabling the party to enter the
government coalition. This sparked international sanctions, demonstrations and street riots, and
prompted calls by Israel and Jewish groups to isolate the country.
Two years later, amid disarray and infighting, the party and its support collapsed.
In the Sept. 28 elections, however, the Alliance and the Freedom Party together made a stunning recovery, capturing 29 percent of the vote — 18 percent for the FPO and 11 percent for the Alliance.
The total, nearly triple what the far right won in elections two years ago, was the
best showing for the far-right forces in Austria since World War II.
Anti-immigrant and anti-European Union rhetoric was only part of the appeal. Commentators said anger and frustration at the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party, the two mainstream parties that have divided power in Austria since World War II, played a major role.
“To conclude that close to 30 percent of all Austrians have suddenly ideologically moved to the right is certainly a false assumption,” wrote Vienna’s Die Presse newspaper. “The reasons for the comet-like rise of the right lies, rather, in the behavior of the long-established people’s parties. And this indeed poses a threat for the freedom of opinion and ideas in Austria.”
Der Standard newspaper was more succinct: “Angry voters vote for angry parties.”
Young voters in particular backed the far right, which many commentators found particularly worrisome.
The far right captured nearly half of the voters younger than 30.
Salzburg-based historian Stan Nadel said this represented the most “shocking” aspect of the
poll. These young voters “don’t, for the most part, seem to be hard-core fascists, but their willingness to accept the near neo-Nazi backgrounds and statements of the leaders of the two parties is a bit frightening,” he said.
“The far rightists campaign in the discos and among the young and, as a result, are often seen as
‘cool’ and ‘authentic’ by a generation whose political education seems to leave much to be desired.”
It is too soon to gauge the impact of Haider’s death on Austria’s political landscape. The electoral results had thrust both Haider and Freedom Party leader Hans Christian Strache into the political spotlight as the Peoples Party and the Social Democrats frantically sought to assemble a viable coalition.
“Strache may be well placed to come in first in the next election if the Social Democrats and the
People’s Party don’t form a successful coalition,” Nadel said.
Conversely, Nadel and others said that without Haider’s charismatic presence, the far right
Strache, 39, had been a Haider protege, but the two had become bitter rivals. Strache had embarked on a strident course, in particular playing on anti-Muslim prejudice and targeting the youth vote.
Ian Traynor in the British Guardian newspaper wrote that Strache “mocks gay people, wants a ministry for
the deportation of immigrants, says ‘Vienna must not become Istanbul,’ hopes to repeal laws banning Nazi revivalism and is pushing for a constitutional ban on the building of minarets.”