“Colourful” did not even begin to describe him. If Bill Clinton was America’s first rock&roll president, Jörg Haider, who died in a car crash early on Saturday morning, was Austria’s first pop politician. Apt for a future right-winger, Haider was born into a national-socialist family. A gifted public speaker, he was active in right-wing circles and in Austria’s national-liberal party FPÖ from an early age on. In 1986, he rose to international prominence when he won (with the support of the party’s nationalist wing) a leadership contest against the FPÖ’s liberal figurehead Norbert Steger. Within months, Haider transformed the slightly dusty FPÖ into one of the most modern, controversial, populist and electorally successful parties of the European Extreme Right.
Under his leadership, the party went from strength to strength. In 1999, the FPÖ won over 20 per cent of the popular vote and entered a coalition with the Christian Democrats, thereby bringing Haider one step closer to his life-long ambition: to become chancellor (prime minister) of Austria. However, his involvement with the Austrian government triggered international backlash and the European Union’s ill-advised “sanctions” against Austria. Subsequentially, the party lost much of its support.
Haider retreated to subnational politics (he was “Landeshauptmann” (minister president) of the state of Carinthia from 1989-91 and then again from 1999 on). In 2005, he and a group of supporters left the FPÖ and formed a new party, the BZÖ. Considered a one-man show by many, Haider and the party garnered almost 11 per cent of the national vote in the general election two weeks ago, and Haider seemed destined to return to the forefront of Austrian politics.
Like many politicians, Haider was many things to many persons. His remarks on the “reasonable” economic and social policies of the Nazis predictably led to an international outcry. He was famous for political gaffes and insults but was described as courteous and friendly once the cameras were switched off. He also played an instrumental role in a referendum campaign against a nuclear power plant in 2002. Of course, he claimed the plant was insecure by definition because it was Czech, allowing Haider to play the national card and to exploit animosities that go back to the days of the Hapsburg Empire. Oddly enough, he also supported Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union.
Haider carefully controlled his public image. Papers haven been written (and published) on his attractiveness for both male and female voter. Back in the 1980s, Austria’s other international pop star Falco quipped that people liked Haider because he was sexy and right-wing. At 58, Haider still projected the image of a youthful sportsman, which might explain that Austrians are so shocked by his sudden death. Politicians from all political parties are now praising his more positive qualities. Carinthia, where he was genuinely popular with large parts of the population, is rife with conspiracy theory.
Oddly enough, the death of its most prodigious leader might make Austria’s Extreme Right even stronger: without him, the BZÖ is an orphan that might soon be brought back into the FPÖ fold.
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