October 13, 2008

On Saturday morning, around 1 am, Jörg Haider, the charismatic Austrian nationalist leader, died in an accident in foggy weather on a dangerous road outside Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia, the province of which Haider was Landeshauptman (governor). Haider was driving 142 kms per hour where only 70 is allowed. When he overtook another car, his own VW Phaeton skidded off the road. The car crashed into a concrete road barrier and rolled over several times. The politician died on the spot.

“€œApart from myself no one will ever be able to stop me,”€ the confident 58-year old politician had boasted a couple of years ago. He proved to be right.

Barely two weeks ago Haider led his party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), to an election victory, gaining 10.7% in the general elections, up from 4.1% two years ago. Haider began his political career in the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the former liberal party, whose leader he became in 1986. He transformed the party into a nationalist party.

Haider was young, charismatic and he had chutzpah. He ran marathons, did bungee jumping, visited discos, and provoked the Austrian and international establishment with refreshing anti-statist, anti-EU, and anti-immigration positions, as well as with politically incorrect statements about the Second World War and the Nazi regime. He led his party from victory to victory, until the 1999 general elections in which the FPÖ gained 27% of the votes. Unfortunately, Haider had a self-destructive streak.

When he brought his party into government in 1999, he refused to take part in the government himself because he did not want to be the second in command in a coalition government with the Christian-Democrats. He retired to his regional Alpine stronghold of Carinthia. There he polled over 40% of the votes, partly for his deliberate provocations of the Slovene ethnic minority in the province.

Without his leadership, the FPÖ unraveled at the federal level. In 2002 the government fell, after infighting within the FPÖ. In the following elections the party dropped to 10.2% of the national vote. Three years later Haider left his own party and established a new one, the BZÖ, which was a largely Carinthian phenomenon. However, in the September 28, 2008, elections, the flamboyant Haider made a political comeback, attracting the support of one in every ten Austrians, although his former party, the FPÖ, did better with 17.5%. Together the two parties exceeded the 1999 result.

In his self-destructiveness Haider resembled Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National. It is difficult to understand why politicians such as Le Pen and Haider always feel compelled to start debates about the Second World War with deliberately controversial statements. In Haider’s case, the Nazi past of his parents may explain an urge to condone them. Since many Austrians come from families tainted with pan-German sympathies, his statements caused little political harm. Nevertheless, sensible and responsible politicians focus on present and future problems, not on those of the past.

Moreover, a politician who has become the hope of thousands of voters should behave responsibly. By driving twice as fast as the speed limit, Haider indicated that he did not have the sense of responsibility one would expect of an adult. Despite his charisma, he failed his wife and children as well as his voters. He had failed many of his former nationalist former voters, too, with the pro-Islamic stances that he began to adopt around the turn of the century, making foreign trips to Arab dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi, whom he called his friends. He also supported Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union.

Most of his voters probably did not support his pro-Islamic views. Perhaps the new leaders of his party, which was basically a one-man party, may reunite with the FPÖ. This would make the FPÖ-BZÖ the major political force in Austria.


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