Alexandra Zawadil, Reuters, October 12, 2008
The death of Austria’s charismatic rightist politician Jörg Haider makes a reunification of the two far-right parties more likely, but they may struggle to keep rural and middle-class voters.
Haider, 58, was killed in a car accident in his home province of Carinthia early on Saturday, traveling at 142 km (88 miles) per hour — twice the legal speed limit, state prosecutors said on Sunday.
Haider helped Austria’s two far right groups win nearly 30 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election two weeks ago, exploiting discontent over squabbling centrist governing parties, inflation and immigration.
And analysts said his sudden departure would increase prospects of reunification between his splinter Alliance for Austria’s Future and the bigger Freedom Party.
The firebrand populist was the main driver of the split between the Alliance and Freedom. There is no obvious successor.
“This (his death) removes an obstacle for the Alliance rejoining Freedom, because the Alliance really only made sense under Haider,” said Peter Pulzer, an expert in Austrian affairs at Oxford University.
Alliance leaders met in Vienna on Sunday but the party might choose not to rush into a quick decision on reunification.
Indeed, it might leave a decision on its future until after regional elections in Carinthia next year, political analyst Peter Hajek said.
VOTERS DON’T ADD
Pulzer said it was by no means certain that a reunited Freedom Party would immediately snap up all Alliance voters.
Success in the September 28 election — in which Alliance almost tripled its support to 11 percent — was due largely to Haider’s personality.
Haider’s recently more conciliatory style and his folksy manners struck a chord with rural voters and with the middle classes. By contrast, Freedom’s new young leader Heinz-Christian Strache appeals more to young, urban blue-collar voters.
“The majority will probably go to the Freedom Party, but not all of them like Strache,” Pulzer said.
Uncertainty about the immediate future of Alliance and its relationship to Freedom means Austria’s two centrist parties are even more likely to form a reprise of their coalition despite both parties’ heavy losses in the election two weeks ago.
Austrian far-right leader Jörg Haider, a charismatic populist who helped thrust anti-immigrant politics into the European mainstream, was killed in a car accident on Saturday.
Haider, 58, who led the right into a coalition government from 2000 to 2006, polarized Austria and drew international condemnation with his anti-foreigner outbursts and for appearing to endorse some Nazi policies.
Last month, after years of retreat into provincial politics, he helped engineer a surge of Austria’s far right to about 30 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election, mining discontent over feuding mainstream governing parties, inflation and immigration.
His spokesman Stefan Petzner said Haider, who was governor of Carinthia province, had been driving to his rural home near Klagenfurt early on Saturday morning for a family gathering to mark his mother’s 90th birthday when the accident occurred.
The government car he was driving skidded out of control after he overtook another vehicle. His car hit a concrete traffic barrier and rolled over several times, police said.
Haider was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital.
Haider shook up Austria’s political scene with his plain-spoken, engaging manner. He struck a chord with ordinary people and was on good personal terms with political foes.
Along with France’s Jean Marie Le Pen, Haider was instrumental in moving the far right, with its core grievances against rising immigration and a perceived loss of national identity through European integration, from the political fringes toward the mainstream on the continent.
Drawing on fears of immigration and eroding national sovereignty in the European Union, Haider led the Freedom Party with a shock 27 percent of the vote into a governing coalition with the conservative People’s Party in 2000.
His triumph stirred widespread condemnation and temporary European Union sanctions against Austria.
After power struggles within Freedom, Haider formed the Alliance for the Future of Austria in 2005. It became junior partner in the governing coalition while the Freedom Party defected into opposition.
In an election in 2006, the Alliance, whose reins Haider had given to a protege while he turned to Carinthian affairs, scraped past the 4 percent threshold to enter parliament.
Haider returned as party chief this year and, adopting a more conciliatory approach open to coalitions with any party, led the Alliance to 10.7 percent of the vote in the September 28 election, behind Freedom’s 17.5 percent.
Heinz-Christian Strache, who took over the Freedom Party in 2005 and had feuded with his former mentor, said: “Whatever differences we had, one has to accord Haider recognition and respect. Austria has lost a great political figure.”