At tumultuous time, Haider’s death removes a key player in Austria
VIENNA — 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 suntanned, 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.”