Text size

Joerg Haider's car crash yesterday was an abrupt, dramatic end to a noisy political life. The car skidded out of control, hit a concrete traffic barrier and flipped over several times, the news agencies reported. Police said Haider, 58, was probably speeding.

The life and death of Austria's radical right-wing leader were anything but routine. "Haider could not have died in a less spectacular way," Gudrun Harrer, a senior commentator for the Austrian daily Der Standard, told Haaretz.

Over the last two decades, no one had a greater impact on Austria's politics than Haider. He commended the Third Reich's employment policy, called SS members "decent people," compared the Jews' deportation during the war to the expulsion of the German Sudetens and described the extermination camps as "punishment camps." His critics compared him to Jean-Marie Le Pen of France and German neo-Nazi leader Gerhard Frey.

The author of "Haiders Kampf," Hans-Henning Scharsach, drew a parallel between Haider's meteoric rise to Hitler's, as did The Economist - "Heil Haider?" its headline read - while Haider's Freedom Party astonished Europe in 1999 when it raked in 28 percent of the Austrian vote.

On the eve of those historic elections, Haider objected, in a special interview with Haaretz, to his party being described as "Europe's largest far-right party."

"I don't believe in political labels, in definitions of left or right, conservative or progressive," he said. "These have long become obsolete. This recognition has contributed to our success and brought us closer to the people. Clinging to old definitions is political fossilization typical of an old party like the (conservative) People's Party. It tries to serve its selfish interests by manipulating the state machinery. Our party, on the other hand, wants to free the people from the shackles of state involvement in favor of private enterprise. It is fighting against the fossilized structures for reforms and renewal. Therefore you can say we are not a left or right party, but simply a modern party - hence our success."

Haider regularly played the outsider, trying to restore to the people the power that the establishment parties had taken away. He repeatedly attacked the Proporz - the old Austrian system "that enables the 'reds and blacks' (as Austria's two central parties, the People's Party and the Social Democrats, are called) to divide between them all the benefits of power."

He appealed to the working classes and promised them less taxes, low rent, more employment. "We're more socialist than the Socialists - look at all the benefits we are going to give the underprivileged," he told Haaretz. "We're not dangerous revolutionaries with unrealistic dreams but pragmatic-realists who mean to make a lot of changes," he said.

Haider's radical anti-establishment stances, his promises to clean the stables, his xenophobia, his Europhobia and the "real alternative" he promised the man on the street - all the formulas that have characterized Europe's right wing - played into his hands, as did his political maneuvers and winning personality. Haider had charisma, rhetorical skills, great sophistication and a young, tanned, sporty appearance. "Solarium king," he was called in Austria.

But beyond this, many Austrians simply supported Haider's views. "Haider wasn't 'politically correct,' but neither are the Austrians," said Herbert Gottweis, a professor from the University of Vienna's Department of Political Science. "He simply said what many people in Austria think."

For example, he said that "every foreigner, even if he's a criminal, receives more government support than an Austrian pensioner," or "it makes no difference whether it's a Romanian pickpocket or a Socialist finance minister who's taking the money out of your pocket." Or, "did you know that under Socialist rule, a black African with a fashionable suit and a state-of-the art cell phone can sell drugs unhindered?"

These statements helped his party achieve great popularity. When Haider won his party's leadership in 1986, less than 5 percent of the nation supported him. In the 1990s the party won 17 percent of the national vote. In the 1995 general elections, the Freedom Party won 21.9 percent of the vote, and in 1999, it won 28 percent. The party's entrance into the coalition following those elections and its split into two parties in 2005 led the far right to crash in the 2006 elections, but it staged a grand comeback last month, repeating the great achievement of 1999.

Haider's father was a member of the Nazi Stormtroop (SA) and his mother - whose 90th birthday he was going to celebrate this weekend - headed a Nazi women's organization. Haider often defended his parents' generation. At the end of the 1980s he backed President Kurt Waldheim when he was attacked for his Nazi past.

Although Haider tried to project a moderate image in the election campaign, this summer he reverted to his old ways with a call to tag all political asylum seekers in Austria with electronic bracelets. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently blasted him for opening a secluded holding center for "delinquent refugees" in his home state of Carinthia, where migrants were incarcerated for alleged offenses without trial or conviction.

The migrants are the new Jews, say observers in Vienna. "They're the scapegoats, as the Jews were in Nazi Germany," one observer says.

Observers felt yesterday that Heinz Christian Strache, who took control of the Freedom Party when Haider left after the 2005 split, may try to take advantage of the leadership vacuum in Haider's newest party, the Alliance for Austria's Future, in order to take over the nationalist arena and unite the two radical movements. After all, the split stemmed from a personal rivalry between the two leaders, not political or ideological differences.

However, even if the move were to succeed, the Social Democrats would still be the largest party in parliament, and they are likely to form the traditional red-black coalition, given the global economic crisis and the fear that Austrian banks might collapse. So while Haider's death may pave the way to a unified Austrian far right, the movement won't be taking power just yet.