Jörg Haider, the polariser

Anton Pelinka
16 October 2008

Also by Anton Pelinka in openDemocracy:

"Austria's sour victory" (6 October 2006)

"Austria's democratic wound" (28 October 2008)

For people outside Austria with a general interest in politics, Jörg Haider is probably one of the three best-known Austrians from the post-1945 years. The other two are the social-democrat Bruno Kreisky (1911-90; chancellor of Austria, 1970-83) and the two-term United Nations secretary-general Kurt Waldheim (1918-2007; president of Austria, 1986-92). The legacy of this rightwing political leader - after his death in an early-morning car-accident on 11 October 2008 - may become clearer if he is seen in relation to these other figures.

In a key respect Jörg Haider resembled Kurt Waldheim and differed from Bruno Kreisky: he polarised Austria. Kreisky, whose history of resistance to Nazi rule and all it implied dated from the 1920s, was an integrator; Waldheim, whose German army service in Yugoslavia during the second world war created intense controversy, divided people. Most Austrians fell into strongly opinionated pro-Waldheim and anti-Waldheim camps, just as they became pro-Haider and anti-Haider.

Yet there is also a difference in this respect between Haider and Waldheim. For Waldheim became a polariser at a late stage in his career, and unintentionally; whereas Haider built his career and profile by polarising. He loved to divide people, to receive the worship of fans and the execration of opponents; to play one position against the other; to divide whenever and wherever he had the chance to do so.

But the proportions were never equal. In this respect, the wave of publicity and the outpouring of comment that has followed Haider's death should not distract from the fact that a majority of Austrians abhorred the idea of being governed by the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (Association for Austria's Future / BZÖ) leader.

The nature of Haider's appeal was evident even to those in the majority camp. He combined a successful post-modernist and "populist" style with an old-fashioned message. He articulated the anger of different groups who - for different reasons - felt themselves overlooked by social and economic developments. He channelled the resentments of old Nazis and of young losers in the modernisation process. He added to the followers of the rather small, bourgeois-agricultural pan-German camp - his original party-base - the votes of sections of the young urban proletariat. He was a youthful version of Jean-Marie Le Pen, able to attract voters traditionally seen as part of the left's secure constituency. But he did it in a way that made the French extreme-right leader look very elderly.

Now that he is gone, what will happen to those he influenced and whose emotions he channelled? Haider's sudden death at the age of 58 could in principle have a similar impact in Austria as the murder of Pim Fortuyn in May 2002 had on Dutch politics: that is, the decline of a rightwing populist movement that was exposed as being very much dependent on one person alone. Again, however, there is an important difference - which will probably mean that the loss of Haider will have a lesser effect than that of Fortuyn. Haider had spent years building a political machine, before a split in 2005 that divided the rightwing camp; the now-dominant rightwing party in Austria today (the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party / FPÖ) is no longer Haider's creation; and there is no doubt that this party (led by Heinz-Christian Strache since 2005) will survive, and perhaps even profit from Haider's death.

Also in openDemocracy on the radical right in Europe:

Nick Ryan, "Eigen Volk Eerst!" (3 July 2003)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (22 April 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

KA Dilday, "Zidane and France: the rules of the game" (19 July 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "French politics: where extremes meet" (4 December 2006)

The result of the general election on 28 September 2008 tends to support this assessment (see "Austria's democratic wound", 28 October 2008). Haider's new BZÖ party did rather well - it was able to win 10.7% of the vote and twenty-one of the national-council's 183 seats. But the original FPÖ performed more strongly - it won 17.5% of the vote and thirty-four seats. The FPÖ now has a good chance to re-establish its monopoly over the rightwing protest vote, whereas the Haider-less BZÖ may be unable to maintain its position and strength.

At the same time, Haider's death could improve the chances for a revival of the "grand coalition" between the two (still) major parties, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP). Haider and his BZÖ were clearly interested in making possible a post-election governing alliance between the moderate right (ÖVP) and the two extreme-right parties (FPÖ, BZÖ). But the ÖVP and FPÖ are much more reluctant to form this kind of partnership. The global financial crisis is an additional incentive to form a new big-party coalition. Without Haider, credible alternatives to an SPÖ-ÖVP government are less plausible than before.

Jörg Haider has been called charismatic. This may be. But the description says more about those who are influenced by a charismatic person than about the charismatic leader himself. There is a certain demand in Austrian society for the kind of simplistic black-and-white answers Haider was able to provide. He did it, moreover, in a certain entertaining way - usually with clearly defined "others" as scapegoats.

This Austrian phenomenon was not synonymous with Jörg Haider. The phenomenon was that a person with such an extremist agenda was able to become one of the most prominent figures in Austrian politics. The Austrian extreme right has lost its most prominent figure. But the explosive mix of an old radical-rightist agenda and the rather new style of populist protest is still there.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData