Austrian Elections The Populist and His Protégé

Jörg Haider used to be Austria's far-right scourge, the populist who could win elections. Now Heinz-Christian Strache, his former protégé, has stepped into his shoes. The two men hate each other, but dissatisfaction among Austrian voters this Sunday could give them unprecedented power.

By Marion Kraske in Vienna


Austrian Freedom Party candidate Christian Strache: Attempting to erase his wild history
AP

Austrian Freedom Party candidate Christian Strache: Attempting to erase his wild history

Outside, the late summer has brought one last bout of sweltering temperatures to the Austrian city of Klagenfurt. But inside the convention center, the state of Carinthia has thrown a party for itself. A trade show devoted to wood products has just opened. Industry officials are giving remarks. The economics minister has traveled to Klagenfurt from Vienna, and even the bishop is there.

Finally, the state's governor steps up to the microphone, sporting a dark tan, smiling with his bright white teeth and wearing a traditional jacket he normally wears at such events. Jörg Haider reports that his state is home to "fantastic manufacturing companies" and that more than 12,000 new jobs have been created. Carinthia is pulling itself up from the bottom of the heap. It's a model for Austria's future. That, at least, is Haider's message.

The choir of the Carinthia Hunters' Association sings "Alpine Greeting," dressed in traditional green loden jackets. Later, Haider grabs a baton and, with a satisfied smile, leads the band in a march. Why not? Carinthia, for the most part, dances to Haider's beat. He received a 42.5 percent share of votes in the state's 2004 legislative elections. Not much is likely to change the next time around, when Carinthians return to the polls for state elections -- unless, of course, "Jörgi," as many people call Austria's most famous living far-right politician -- has returned to Vienna.

Haider, 58, is running for national office, too, in an election to be held this Sunday. The enfant terrible of Austrian politics and onetime second-in-command in a notorious coalition formed in 2000, Haider wants to return to the national stage. His "Alliance for Austria's Future" (BZÖ) -- a far-right splinter party founded in 2005 that has worked with limited success to win national seats -- will try on Sunday to "catch up by a few percentage points," as Haider says. It will be his last chance to exert influence in Vienna.

His chances aren't half bad. Most Austrians are fed up with their grand coalition, a wheeling and dealing group of politicians dominated alternately by the center left and center right. The current government's approval rating has dropped to 20 percent. On July 7, Wilhelm Molterer, head of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), dissolved the coalition, and since then the country has been in the grip of a wild, populist campaign oriented toward the supposed will of the people.

A poll taken just over a week before this Sunday's election.
DER SPIEGEL

A poll taken just over a week before this Sunday's election.

Suddenly the Social Democrats (SPÖ) have discovered their skepticism about the European Union. They've begun to sound more populist, and in this environment the ÖVP has found trouble defining itself. It has resorted to crude anti-foreigner rhetoric. Despite all these efforts Austria's two major parties can expect to have far fewer seats after Sunday.

The pollsters predict that the winners will be the archetypes of boorish populism: the right-wing bloc, Haider's BZÖ and, most of all, Heinz-Christian Strache's Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) -- the same party which once made Haider Austria's second-most-powerful politician, and which he abandoned after a series of embarrassing caprices.

The only problem is that the feared right-wing bloc is no longer a bloc at all, because its leaders -- mutually disappointed former friends --- are now mortal enemies. But the question on most Austrians' minds is whether the two men are sworn enemies for good, or could they work in a coalition if it seemed a right-wing politician had a shot at the chancellorship?

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