Jörg Haider's Legacy The Death of a Right-Wing Populist

Many in Austria saw Jörg Haider as an intrepid man of the people. Others, though, found his brand of right-wing populism distasteful. His death on Saturday morning leaves behind a complicated political legacy.

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Jörg Haider didn't know, of course, that the end was near. Still, he could hardly have prepared better for his early Saturday morning death. Since the beginning of October, the powerful right-wing populist from Austria had seemed to be revisiting the important stages in his life in fast-forward: friends, relatives, enemies and companions.

Haider, who for many years led the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) before founding his own right-leaning populist party, the Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ), in 2005, was pulled out of the wreckage of his Volkswagen Phaeton shortly after 1 a.m. on Saturday morning. According to police, Haider lost control of his vehicle while passing another car and was traveling double the legal limit of 70 kilometers per hour at the time of the accident. He died on the way to the hospital.

But his death came at the end of a frenetic trip back to his own political and personal roots. At the beginning of the month, he once again found himself in Vienna negotiating the establishment of a governing coalition; then he was a coffin bearer at the funeral of his political mentor; back in Vienna, he made peace with the leader of the party he abandoned -- FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache. On Saturday night, he was on his way to help celebrate his mother's 90th birthday.

Haider, sporting a deep tan, had eight days and eight hours left to live when he sat down in the Viennese café Tirolerhof on the Thursday before last. He ordered himself a Kombucha, a tea drink taken by the fitness conscious. The waiter scampered to and fro, those at the neighboring table did little to hide their eavesdropping. And Haider held forth, saying that he had just visited "Heinzi," referring to Austrian President Heinz Fischer. He talked of how he once again wanted to play an influential role in Austrian politics and said that his new party, the BZÖ, was slowly growing from a regional party, with its power base in Haider's home state of Carinthia, into one with national influence.

Uncritical Praise of the Nazis

The 58-year-old had reason to be pleased with himself. Despite polls having forecast a disaster for the BZÖ, Haider managed to propel his populist party to an impressive result of almost 11 percent in general elections at the end of September. It wasn't the first time that Haider had managed to grab a powerful lever in national Austrian politics. He had led his former party, the FPÖ, into a governing coalition in Vienna in 2000. His most recent election success, though, may very well have been the sweeter one, as it came almost exclusively as a result of his personal political influence. Once again, he was in a position to tip the coalition scales.

Still, when asked about what the BZÖ would be without him, Haider played modest. "It has now grown to the point where it could continue without me," Haider said in the Tirolerhof Café. And then, he was off -- back to Carinthia, his own personal realm, where he has ruled for much of the past 20 years. In Europe, Haider's periodic, uncritical praise of the Nazis turned him into one of the continent's most controversial politicians. In 1995, he praised members of the SS for being "respectable people" with "character." In 1991, he praised Hitler's Third Reich for its employment policies. But at home in Carinthia, he was able to offer his constituents more than drivelling right-wing populism -- he was a man of the people who could also be a dauntless and powerful representative on the political stage.

The morning after his visit to the Viennese café, Haider -- he had seven days left to live -- sat down next to Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer in a church just south of Klagenfurt. He was there for the funeral of Leopold Wagner, who had been instrumental in propelling Haider into the political limelight. Wagner was a Social Democratic politician and, as he himself said, a former "committed member of the Hitler Youth." He was also a symbol of the specifically Austrian political climate that allowed someone like Jörg Haider to climb to political prominence in 1986.

EU-Critical Following

Haider's FPÖ, after all, wasn’t the only political home for former Nazis. But the tacit agreement that the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) reached after the end of the war to split power among themselves -- all the while insisting on their anti-fascist credentials -- isolated the so-called "third camp" represented by the right-wing populist FPÖ. In the mid-1980s, the young FPÖ member Haider began blasting the cronyism of the country's two largest parties. And through his appearances in sporting events, beer halls, and anywhere else people were gathered, he quickly gained a reputation as a politician willing to make waves in an Austria that tended to shy away from political confrontation.

His path was not always a direct one. His 1991 praising of Nazi labor policies led to his having to give up the Carinthia governorship. Other verbal slip-ups led to repeated political setbacks. But he was always able to reinvent himself and make a comeback, transforming himself from a staunch German nationalist to an Austrian patriot and, in the end, into the local potentate of Carinthia. While Europe was tearing down fences, Haider was putting them up -- and where he went, a sizeable portion of Austria's EU-critical population followed.

Two days before his death, Haider celebrated the anniversary of the Carinthian Plebiscite, the 1920 agreement that divided the then Austro-Hungarian state between Austria and the newly formed Kindom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. He did it at a traditional restaurant located in Klagenfurt's pedestrians-only town center. And he was treated like a pop star.

The Haider Legacy

It wasn't the first time he had enjoyed such a reception. Haider's fan club, even outside Austria, was large. When Austria co-hosted the European Championship football tournament in the summer of 2008, people from Germany, Poland and Croatia would approach him for autographs and souvenir photos. Haider enjoyed a cross-border reputation for being the voice of the common man, and he enjoyed the homage of his supporters to the end. Even so, Haider still gave off the impression of being a lonely man. While the 58-year-old cultivated an appearance of being an energetic outdoorsy type, he hid a profound fear of growing old.

Bruno Kreisky, Austrian chancellor from 1970 to 1983 and a member of the center-left SPÖ, called the young Jörg Haider a political talent worth watching. Following Haider's death, Kreisky's protégé, current Austrian President Heinz Fischer, praised him as being a politician of "ability and talent." More than 25 years separate these two evaluations. But in the end, no matter how talented he may have been as a politician, it is difficult to escape the realization that Haider, the intrepid taboo-breaker, sabotaged the achievement of his own political goals. The negative attention he seemed to thrive on -- for praising the Nazis, for visiting Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, for repeated verbal attacks on foreigners and ethnic minorities -- meant that Haider strayed from his primary mission: That of breaking up Austria's two-party political cartel.

The final results of the most recent national parliamentary elections, announced just five days before Haider's death, now read like the narrative of Haider's legacy. Austria's far-right parties -- Haider's old FPÖ and his new BZÖ -- combined to land in second place, just a hair behind the SPÖ. The populist right is once again poised to enter a governing coalition.

Could it be that the death of the oft-maligned leader of the right-wing rebels will pave the way for their accession into power? It would be Jörg Haider's final -- albeit post mortem -- triumph.

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