It was one of those rare, touching moments in politics. On Sunday night in the southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt, Claudia Haider popped up on stage during Gerhard Dörfler's election victory celebration. The widow was carrying a small gift for the newly re-elected governor of Carinthia, wrapped carefully in white paper. Dörfler turned away from the cameras to unwrap his present discreetly before holding it out for all to see: A silver framed photograph of Dörfler together with Claudia Haider's recently deceased husband.
Jörg Haider's presence was everywhere in Carinthia on Sunday. Prior to Haider's death last October -- after he crashed his car driving under the influence of alcohol at twice the legal speed limit -- the right-wing politician was one of Austria's most popular politicians. This weekend, his party, the Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ), proved that it could survive without its charismatic leader. In state elections, Dörfler and his party received 45.5 percent of the vote, more than the BZÖ had ever received when Haider was still alive.
"I am surprised by the result," said his widow Claudia. "I didn't know that gratitude was a category in politics."
The BZÖ, for its part, made it clear on election night that it saw the vote as a tribute to the party's founder. There is a picture of Haider in a prominent place in the foyer of the state capital building in downtown Klagenfurt -- framed in gold this time. Throughout the evening, party functionaries stood near the photo when the television cameras pointed their direction. He was a constant presence in the party's campaign, and the BZÖ Web site has a prominent link to what they call "Jörg Haider TV," a collection of videos featuring the beloved politician.
The strategy seems to have succeeded beyond all expectations. Even as opinion polls predicted a tight race between the BZÖ and the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), the SPÖ ended up with just 28.8 percent, well behind their right-wing rivals. Instead of returning to its pre-Haider dominance in Carinthia, the SPÖ ended up losing to Haider's ghost.
"We really didn't expect such a result," said Reinhart Rohr, the SPÖ's lead candidate in the campaign, complaining that the vote had been marked by "irrationalities." "Apparently the Haider Factor played an important role."
Haider burst onto the political scene in the early 1980s. His was a fresh, and loud, new voice within the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), a far-right grouping that fit well as a backdrop to Haider's populist attacks on the country's political establishment, represented by the SPÖ and the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). Haider's occasional slip-ups -- praising Nazi labor policies at one point in the early 1990s, for example -- merely fuelled his reputation as a politician not afraid to attack the status quo.
His constant, often xenophobic, attacks on immigration and his vocal opposition to accelerating European Union integration earned him support from Austria's largely EU-critical population. Indeed, for a time in the 1990s, Haider's influence on the populist right extended far outside the borders of Austria.
Under Haider, the FPÖ rose to become a force in Austrian national politics, becoming part of the national governing coalition in 2000. But in 2005, he left the party to create one of his own. The BZÖ's rise quickly proved that it was Haider himself that the voters wanted. On Sunday, the FPÖ, which won 42.4 percent of the vote in the state's last elections in 2004, couldn't even top the 5 percent hurdle required for representation in state parliament.
Whether the BZÖ will now be able to ride its popularity in Carinthia to nation-wide influence remains to be seen. Last September, just weeks before Haider died, the party received a surprisingly strong 11 percent of the vote in nationwide general elections.
The next time voters go to the polls, though, the BZÖ will likely be unable to rely on the posthumous charisma of the party's founder. Dörfler, who likes to chop wood in his spare time, is now faced with the task of further solidifying his party's hold on Carinthian politics while the beaming young followers that Haider surrounded himself with will look to extend the party's influence.
But the Haider myth began to dissipate already on Sunday evening -- at the Wienerroither restaurant in Klagenfurt. The joint was packed with BZÖ supporters, many of them young and dressed up in Austrian folk costume. Party head Uwe Scheuch took the floor. "We have become even stronger in the post-Jörg Haider era," he yelled to the crowd. He then dedicated the "historic victory" to the party's founder. And said it was time to "move on."