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

Jorg Haider’s Death Could Speed Austria’s March to the Right

October 13, 2008 04:15 PM
by Christopher Coats
Jorg Haider was celebrated and derided at home and abroad, and his death may clear the path to a stronger right wing in an increasingly conservative Austria.

Possible Unification of Far-Right Political Groups

Coming just weeks after staging a dramatic national comeback, Austrian political leader Jorg Haider’s death this weekend could actually serve to strengthen the progress made by far-right parties during the September elections.

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.

However, with his young party left without a leader, early reports point to a possible collaboration between the two far-right groups, which would give them a 29 percent presence in Parliament.

“This will unify the right-wing camp,” Emmerich Talos, professor of political science at the University of Vienna, told The New York Times.

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 on Saturday after attending two parties in his official role as party leader and governor of the southern province of Carinthia. After giving his driver the night off, 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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