Jörg Haider was one the most gifted European politicians of his generation. The far-right governor of Carinthia, who died in a car crash October 11 at the age of 58, pioneered a new and dangerous style of politics that shook up Austria’s political landscape and was widely copied across Europe. Even in death, however, his legacy is likely to continue to haunt us, as evidenced by last month’s Austrian parliamentary elections, in which parties of the far-right won nearly 30% of the vote.
Haider was most notorious abroad for his alleged sympathy for Nazi ideas. The son of Nazis, he called the Third Reich’s employment policies “orderly” and praised the steadfast character of former S.S. officers at a veterans’ meeting. Though he tended to avoid open antisemitism, he surrounded himself with people who openly espoused racist and antisemitic views.
The reason for his political success, however, had little to do with Austria’s past. Rather, it had to do with Austria’s present. Better than anyone else, Haider was able to articulate the growing popular unease about immigration from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
After wresting control of the small Freedom Party in 1986 through an intra-party putsch, he first focused on attacking the long-running monopoly on power of Austria’s two established parties, the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party. But when a flood of refugees from the war-torn Balkans and other regions hit Austria during the 1990s, he made immigration his main theme. And when Austria joined the European Union in 1995, he became a spokesman for all those who saw their traditional way of life endangered by European integration and globalization. Under his leadership, the Freedom Party surged from between 1986, when opinion polls put its support at 5% or less and 1999 when it took 27% of the vote in parliamentary elections.
Haider’s appeal was based on his ever-youthful charisma and his ability to voice totally divergent positions to different constituencies. One moment, he would tout free-market reforms to business leaders, the next he would promise increased social welfare spending to poor pensioners and disgruntled blue-collar workers. Many voters, particularly those in his adopted home province of Carinthia, enjoyed his irreverent attacks against the Vienna elites, his love of flashy suits and fast cars, and his astute sense of the public mood.
Even though his death was ignominious — he crashed his car while driving intoxicated on an Alpine road at twice the permitted speed — it has been followed in Austria by an almost hysterical outpouring of mourning that recalls the death of Princess Diana.
The loss of Haider and his unique magnetism is a real blow to Austria’s far-right. Last month’s general elections — in which the Freedom Party (now under the leadership of Haider protégé-turned-rival Heinz-Christian Strache) took 18% of the vote and Haider’s new party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, garnered 11% — could prove to be the far-right’s high water mark. But the appeal of Haider’s anti-immigrant, anti-Europe and anti-establishment brand of politics is unlikely to disappear, not in Austria, nor in other European countries where it has taken root.
Right-wing populist parties regularly net double-digit returns at the polls in Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and several Eastern European countries. Some of them, like Haider, have strong ties to the old-fashioned European fascism; others present a modern, though similarly frightening, face. (An exception to the far-right surge is Germany, where economic and social uncertainty is boosting the radical left.)
Many Europeans have not come to terms with the fact that the traditional, mono-ethnic nation-state is no longer a viable option in the era of globalization. They may take advantage of the menial labor provided by immigrants and of the economic opportunities of the European Union, but in the voting booth they side with populist demagogues who make foreigners and E.U. officials the scapegoats for all domestic ills. The far-right has certainly contributed to the tightening of immigration rules in Europe, rising xenophobia and growing opposition to Turkey’s accession to the E.U.
Supporters of far-right parties often see their votes as a protest against the establishment, not as a genuine choice of a future government. But in the proportional voting systems of Austria and other European countries, the presence of large far-right parties in parliament makes the formation of stable governments difficult. In Austria, the recent strong showing by the far-right will force the two main establishment parties back together in a left-right coalition, a sclerotic arrangement that is sure to fuel even more popular discontent and anger.
So even though it is risky and unpopular, it may sometimes be useful to include the far-right parties in government. When Haider’s party joined the conservatives in a coalition in 2000, the rest of the E.U. member states reacted with anger and downgraded their relations with Austria. But once Haider and his party were forced to reckon with the day-to-day responsibilities of actually participating in governance, they quickly lost their luster and consequently suffered at the polls — leading the far-right to splinter into its two current factions in 2005.
Unfortunately, there is no ideal recipe for dealing with the far-right. Too often, other parties decide to simultaneously exclude these groups from power while adopting some of their policies. As history has shown, that is a sure method of making the far-right parties stronger. On the other hand, inviting them into government is far from a palatable option.
Haider was a talented demagogue. But the movement he built — and the social realities that fuel it — are much bigger than one man. While his death may prove to be a setback for the far-right, his ugly brand of politics is certain to outlive him.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.