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Jörg Haider:
A dangerous chameleon

Eric Frey and William Hall find disillusionment with established parties
in Austria opening the door to a maverick


Jorg Haider, leader of Austria's far-right Freedom party, likes to dress up for his audience. He will do anything from traditional Austrian lederhosen to young designer clothes to capture attention. His political opponents joke that he changes his clothes as regularly as his policies in an effort to please everyone.

On Sunday night, when Austria's political leaders gathered for a television debate on the country's biggest political upset in 50 years, Mr Haider arrived in a business suit. For Viktor Klima, Austria's Social Democrat chancellor, and Wolfgang Schussel, Austria's vice-chancellor and leader of the conservative People's party, the message was clear: now he was one of them.

Mr Haider's election success has once again focused international attention on Austria, a small country that has a habit of producing nasty surprises for the rest of Europe. The 1914 murder of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo led to World War 1; the collapse of Vienna's Creditanstalt in 1931 has been blamed for the great depression; and Adolf Hitler was one of Austria's most famous sons.

His arrival on the centre stage of Austrian politics after more than a decade in the wilderness, has already reawakened the fear that Austria cannot be relied on to form a stable part of the post-war social and political consensus. The fear is exacerbated by Austria's role as a member of the European Union, which it joined in 1995.

Austria had been expected to play a leading part in the EU's planned enlargement to include eastern European states. But Mr Haider has made little secret of his antipathy to EU enlargement, and his xenophobic campaign against immigrants has struck a loud chord with the blue-collar workers who have usually backed Mr Klima's party.

Fears about Mr Haider have hardly been helped by the fact that his father was a member of the Hitler Youth, or by his comments about the Third Reich having a "sound employment policy". He has also expressed respect for the "courage" of former Nazi SS officers. But Mr Haider is too pragmatic to let himself be easily slotted into the category of fascist sympathiser.

Mr Haider, 49, is a lawyer who was born in Bad Goisern in Upper Austria. He is younger than both his political opponents, yet has been leading his party far longer than either of them. He joined the Freedom party in 1970 as a leftwing rebel, and after he took power in 1986, moved his party to the right.

It was the first of many policy about-turns that have accompanied his dogged rise to power. He was once an ardent supporter of European integration, but fought unsuccessfully against Austria's membership of the European Union. He presents himself as a modern-day Robin Hood fighting for the rights of the poor and disaffected. Yet he picked Thomas Prinzhorn, a wealthy industrialist with Thatcherite economic views, as his top candidate in this election.

In his campaign, he combined proposals for expensive social programmes, such as a Sch5,700 (Dollars 443) monthly child allowance, with a flat tax rate of 23 per cent that would benefit the well-off. His opponents accused him of failing to produce a properly budgeted manifesto. Yet Mr Haider has used a boyish charm and eloquent self confidence to gloss over inconsistencies.

The final result of Sunday's elections will not be known until later this week and Mr Schussel, Austria's foreign minister, refuses to accept that his party has been overtaken by Mr Haider's Freedom party, which increased its share of the vote from 21.9 per cent to 27.2 per cent. Since there are only 14,000 votes between the two parties and 200,000 votes still to be counted, there is a chance that Mr Schussel's party could scrape into second place and increase its current 26.9 per cent share.

However, the surge in support for Mr Haider's party, and the sharp fall in support for Mr Klima's Social Democrats, whose vote fell from 38 per cent to 33.4 per cent, marks a watershed in the politics of what has tradition ally been one of Europe's most stable democracies.

Mr Haider's success is all the more surprising since Austria is prospering. It is one of Europe's richest countries and its unemployment rate is less than half the European average. It has one of the best social security safety nets in the world, below average inflation, and is growing faster than immediate neighbours such as Germany and Italy.

Early analysis of Sunday's election results shows that Mr Haider picked up most of his support from the blue-collar members of the ruling Social Democrat party. According to Austria's Centre for Applied Political Research, the percentage of trade union members voting for the Social Democrats has fallen from 62 per cent to 49 per cent since the start of the decade, while the Freedom party's share has almost doubled to 21 per cent.

Georg Male, a public relations consultant in Vienna, says that Mr Haider ran "by far the best election campaign" of the three parties. He sold himself to electors as someone to whom they could talk. Joachim Kuhnert, a veteran public relations adviser, describes Mr Haider as "a dangerous populist, promising everything to everybody".

While Mr Haider's campaign platform may have been inconsistent, there is no doubt about the consistency of his political methods. He is a skilful and often ruthless manipulator who uses rhetorical and legal tricks to undermine opponents. "If Haider were a poker player, he would constantly cheat, and the onlookers would love it," says the Austrian writer Doron Rabinovici.

Although Mr Haider picked up considerable support from Social Democrat supporters fearful of losing their jobs to a new wave of immigrants, his support is much more widely based than in the past. In particular, he finally seems to capitalised on the growing disenchantment with the way the two main parties have carved up power and influence between themselves for 50 years.

Mr Klima's Social Democrat party, known as the Reds, has ruled Austria for nearly 30 years. Nearly all the time this has been with Mr Schussel's People's party, dubbed the Blacks, as junior coalition party. Since 1945, the Reds and Blacks have been the only two parties that counted in Austrian politics, and their influence extends well beyond the political arena.

Ownership of a Red or Black party card can still help advance careers in Austria's state-owned industries and the public sector where patronage remains entrenched. Mr Klima and Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer, secretary of state in the finance ministry, were both employed by OMV, Austria's biggest oil and gas company, before they began their political careers.

Austria's two big parties are widely regarded as being more interested in carving up the spoils of power than opening up the Austrian economy to outside competition. There have been problems in deregulating the national electricity industry because of the influence of political patronage, and foreign takeover bids for Austrian blue chip companies have provoked a xenophobic reaction.

For this reason, many Austrians welcome Mr Haider's success as a challenge of a corrupt status quo. But his success also carries considerable risks for Austria international standing. The election has awoken memories of Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary general of the United Nations, who was found to have a shady wartime record halfway through his six-year term as president.

Nor is Austria's image the only thing at risk. After the first election results, Franz Fischler, the EU agriculture and fisheries EU commissioner, said he could not imagine Austria turning its back on the potential economic benefits of EU enlargement to neighbouring countries.

"I can hardly imagine a government would work against the interests of the country," said Mr Fischler, himself Austrian. Those familiar with Mr Haider's past inconsistencies hope that Mr Fischler's optimism proves well-founded. But once again, Austria has confused and worried the rest of Europe.

Mit den besten Grüßen an die Leser von haGalil onLine - Eric Frey
© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 1999
Financial Times - 05-Oct-1999

haGalil 10-99

Die hier archivierten Artikel stammen aus den "Anfangsjahren" der breiten Nutzung des Internet. Damals waren die gestalterischen Möglichkeiten noch etwas ursprünglicher als heute. Wir haben die Artikel jedoch weiterhin archiviert, da die Informationen durchaus noch interessant sein können, u..a. auch zu Dokumentationszwecken.

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