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