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Pier Paolo Cito/AP
Jorg Haider in December of 2000.

Gay Affair and Suspicion Sends Austria's Far Right into Disarray

October 24, 2008 06:58 AM
by Christopher Coats
An affair between former party leader Jorg Haider and his successor Stefan Petzner, and suspicions of foul play surrounding Haider's deadly car accident, raise many questions.

Questions About Affair and Crash Linger

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After a month that saw significant political gains and the death of their charismatic leader, Austria’s resurgent far right political party has been thrown into disarray after its new head spoke out about his personal relationship with his predecessor, Jorg Haider.

Haider, who was killed in a high-speed car accident earlier this month, was “the man of my life,” said Stefan Petzner, the newly appointed head of the Alliance for the Future of Austria.

Detailing a deeply personal relationship with Haider, Petzner shocked the Austrian far right with an emotional and open interview with a morning radio show.

“We had a relationship that went far beyond friendship. Jorg and I were connected by something truly special,” Petzner said.

“The revelations came after photographs in the Austrian media showing Mr. Haider in a gay bar shortly before his fatal accident,” reported the Independent. Haider reportedly traveled there after an argument with Petzner and had several drinks before leaving alone in his car.

Petzner's announcement comes just as speculation of foul play surrounding Haider's death reached a fever pitch, with his wife requesting a second autopsy.

"Mr Haider's body was abruptly withdrawn from a planned cremation on Saturday," reported the Daily Telegraph. "It said Mrs Haider feared her husband may have been drugged."

Shaken by the news, coming just a month after they had doubled their presence in the Austrian Parliament, the Alliance announced that Petzner would step down and be replaced by “Josef Buchner, 43, a hotel owner and a divorced father of two, [who] is seen as a more conservative choice.”

Petzner will serve as his deputy for the time being.

The 27-year-old Petzner was appointed head of the party after Haider’s death, following years by the side of the conservative party leader. The two met while Petzner was still in college and had worked closely ever since, with the younger becoming Haider’s deputy.

The party’s shake-up came after only about a week of Petzner on top, and could signal trouble for its future.

Already, leaders of Haider’s former Freedom Party have extended a hand to members of the Alliance, offering a place should their organization dissipate in the absence of their leader.

The national controversy surrounding Petzner’s interview, suspicion about Haider's death and shift in leadership could speed that process.

Winning 11 percent of the national vote late last month, Haider’s Alliance for Austria’s Future shared sizable electoral gains for the far right with the country’s Freedom Party, signaling a national shift to more conservative governance.

Combined, the two parties made it impossible for any other party to claim a majority in the Austrian Parliament.

A melding of the two parties would put them one point away from becoming the country’s strongest political force.

Background: A prominent voice leaves a void

Haider died in a car accident earlier this month after attending two parties in his official role as party leader and governor of the southern province of Carinthia. Haider was reportedly traveling at approximately double the speed limit when he lost control of his car.

The loss of Haider leaves his young party, formed in 2005, without a leader, making a reunification of the two parties all the more likely.

Haider’s Alliance was formed by breakaway members of the Freedom Party three years ago, after he was forced out of the group over controversy surrounding some of his more controversial comments and public views.

The son of two active members of the Nazi Party, Haider had made no secret of his admiration for the actions of the party and members of the SS. An active member of the Freedom Party, Haider quickly rose through the ranks of leadership after earning a law degree, and seemed destined for a national role before his comments and beliefs caught up with him in 2000.

It was then that the Freedom Party formed a coalition with the more traditional conservative party, earning Austria threats of sanctions from the European Union and criticism from across the world.

Israel called their ambassador to Austria home.

Although he fell out with the Freedom Party, Haider would go on to win the governorship in Carinthia and remain an active and charismatic figure in regional politics.

Last month, voters brought Haider and his party back into the national fold when they gave his current and former party a sizable, but ultimately toothless, presence in Parliament.

However, if the two parties merge, observers say that it could solidify the county’s move toward right-wing political groups—a movement fueled by frustration over economic inflation, immigration policies and Austria’s traditional right and left of center parties.

Deutsche Welle speculated that while the Alliance, under newly appointed head Stefan Petzner, would need time to regroup, the Freedom Party would be eager to strike up an agreement of collaboration.

This effort would be made more attractive given the absence of Haider, who had held a contentious distance from Freedom since being ousted in 2005, although a successful collaboration is far from certain.

“It doesn’t follow that everybody who voted for the Alliance would transfer allegiance to Freedom,” Peter Pulzer, an expert in Austrian affairs at Oxford University, told Reuters. “Not everybody voted for Alliance for political reasons, but rather on the grounds of personality.”

Austria’s shift reflects a broader, continent-wide shift to the right, attributed to similar frustrations, leaving only three western European nations under governments that can be described as left of center.

Opinion & Analysis: Recent gains by the right

Shortly after September’s election results gave the far right a bolt of energy, The Guardian warned that their progress should not be dismissed as solely votes of protest and that “the complacency of the argument that the far-right vote is only a temporary blip on the horizon, is part of their problem,” referring to the two parties that have ruled over Austria since the end of WWII. The British paper pointed to similar cases in Germany and noted that unless the continent’s established parties reformulated their approach to governance, groups with extreme views could be increasingly attractive alternatives to frustrated voters.

The Economist dismissed the two parties’ recent advances by pointing to the possibility of a protest vote. However, a collaboration of the Freedom and Alliance parties, which would put them just one percent away from the majority Social Democrats, could mean a stronger voice for the far right, especially among younger voters, who made up a large percentage of the shifting voting bloc.
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