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Eye On Regionalism: The Legacy of Austria’s Jörg Haider

I’m not sure if the headline made much of a splash in early October of this year on this side of the Atlantic, but when I saw Jörg Haider’s obituary notice while cruising through the NY Times, I was shocked. My first thought—he was a pretty young guy. I had followed him over the years because of my interest in European politics and had just read an article that noted the support that his newly-found party won in recent Austrian parliamentary elections.

At 1:18am on October 11th Haider died from injuries sustained when his black VW Phaeton crashed on his way home to Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia, the southern province where he was governor for twelve years. He was driving 142 kmh (88 mph), nearly double the speed limit, with a blood alcohol level that was three times the legal limit.

Haider was Austria’s boy, whether you agreed with his politics or not. He garnered an international reputation as a controversial and charismatic far-right politician. Some of the remarks he made included that the Third Reich had a “proper employment policy”, that SS veterans were men of “character, honor, and conviction”, and cited “foreigner overrun” (Überfremdung) when speaking about immigration in Austria, a term not used since the Nazi days. With such anti-Semitic and xenophobic comments Haider managed to become a figurehead in Austria and for an array of far-right European groups.

Born in the Upper Austrian town of Bad Goisern in 1950, Haider’s early life was formed from his father Robert, a shoemaker, and former Nazi, who joined the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) in 1929 at the age of fifteen, and his mother Dorothea, a teacher, who had been active in the NSDAP as a leader of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or the female branch of the Nazi youth party movement.

His first political involvement came in 1970 as youth leader for the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), a party opposed to the political catholicism of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the socialist views of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ). Moving through the ranks he became head of the regional Carinthian Freedom Party in 1983, and in 1989 beat out the Social Democrats to become governor of Carinthia. Under his leadership the Freedom Party moved further to the right, reflecting his nationalist, anti-immigration, and anti-EU views. A debate in 1991 over reducing unemployment payments for people he saw as “freeloaders” forced his resignation when he said: “…the Third Reich had a proper employment policy, which not even your [Social Democratic] government in Vienna can manage to bring about.”

Haider re-entered the political scene in 1999 as head of the Freedom Party and took 27% of the vote in Austria’s parliamentary elections, which gained him international prominence. The inclusion of the Freedom Party in the coalition government with then conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel in 2000 provoked international outrage and sanctions from the EU. The heads of government of the other fourteen EU members ceased cooperation with the Austrian government; other national leaders shunned diplomatic contacts with Schüssel’s government because of Haider’s politics.

Stepping down from politics in 2000 after EU sanctions, Haider returned to his seat as governor of Carinthia in a surprise 2004 election that won him 42% of the vote. The following year he broke off from the Freedom Party to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), a new movement meant to reflect more moderate conservative policy.

In national elections in late September 2008 Haider’s party received 10.8% and the far-right Freedom Party gained 17.7% of the vote. The combined 29% for right-wing parties placed them on nearly equal footing with the Social Democrats, who came in first place with 29.7%.

The result was seen as a political comeback for Haider and the right-wing politics and made his death all the more devastating for his supporters. Stephan Petzner, Haider’s party secretary said, “For us, this is the end of the world.” Thomas Hofer, an independent political consultant in Vienna said, “This is the end of an era. He was more controversial than any other, but also one of the most politically talented individuals in the country’s history.”

Haider’s death led to an outpouring of grief compared by some to the mourning in Britain after the death of Princess Diana. On Saturday October 18th, 30,000 people turned out in Klagenfurt, a city of less than 100,000 people, for Haider’s funeral service. For those that couldn’t be there in person the state broadcaster ORF had live coverage. Austrian President Heinz Fischer, a Social Democrat, called Haider a “politician of great talent.” Austrians decorated the site of the accident where Haider’s sedan came to rest after flipping over several times. Even Toni Faber, a priest at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, said: “We stand, in shock, before the death of a man who moved Austria…When bidding farewell one should consider the good sides of the deceased.”

Maybe it was just human emotion that drove the support for Haider’s death. This was the same Haider that many Austrians were ashamed of, the same Haider that said, “Austria was under siege from Turkish immigrants”, openly made fun of people based on their skin color and ancestry, and in one of his last acts established what he called a Sonderlager, a special camp for criminal asylum seekers, located on an isolated 1,200-meter-high alpine pasture. In his own state of Carinthia, which has more than 10% Slovene speaking inhabitants, Haider pursued a policy of segregation in schools and the removal of existing bilingual street topographic road signs.

Most observers see little chance for Haider’s party outside of Carinthia. Yet his death could mark a crucial turning point for Austrian politics. Anton Pelinka, a professor of politics at the Central European University in Budapest warns: “The possibilities for a rise of the far right in light of the financial and economic crisis are there.” His death could give Heinz-Christian Strache, the current leader of the Freedom Party who is known as a more vulgar version of Haider, an opportunity to position his right-wing nationalist party for future elections.

For now Austria has a new cabinet, led by the Social Democratic Party and the centrist conservative People’s Party, but the popularity of Haider, even after his death, and the rise of his Freedom party highlight the potential for continuing ethnic tensions in Austria, a theme which we have been following closely across Europe.

We will continue to explore our Investment Theme of “Regionalism” in the coming weeks. Last week’s focus on immigration in Germany relates well to Austria, a country with similar multicultural issues. Should you have any feedback on these regional pieces, I can be contacted at

Matthew Hedrick