After Haider, Austrian Far-Right Could Grow

Alexandra Zawadil, Reuters, October 14, 2009

A year after his death in a car crash, a new memorial to Joerg Haider has become a temple to the man who shook up European politics with his anti-foreigner campaigns.

But where fans flock to the exhibits in Carinthia province to pore over such relics as Haider’s childhood rocking horse and family photos, outside the province he ruled for more than a decade, his party’s days look numbered.

The Alliance for Austria’s Future has stumbled badly in regional elections held since Haider’s death, failing to win enough votes to get seats in three provincial parliaments. In Carinthia in March it polled over 45 percent to retain power.

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The main center-left and center-right parties have been hemorrhaging votes, weakened by bland, faceless politicians–the two had their worst showing since World War Two in 2008 because of perceptions they were out touch with concerns over the economy and immigration.

The only winners were the far-right parties Alliance and the Freedom Party. Freedom was Haider’s original party before he split off to form the slightly more moderate Alliance in 2005.

The original Freedom Party at one point gained such mainstream appeal in the insular Alpine republic, feeding off xenophobia and anti-European Union sentiment, that it entered a governing coalition with the conservatives from 2000-2006.

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Analysts say Heinz-Christian Strache, a vigorous, 40-year-old former dental technician, has been able to build on Haider’s legacy using right-wing populism and painting himself as a man of the people.

“Just like Haider, Strache goes to discos and is especially attractive to young men without higher education,” said political analyst Anton Pelinka.

Freedom Party has doubled its share of the vote in two provincial elections earlier this year.

It has performed well since Austria’s voting age was lowered to 16. On his website, Strache is photographed in black and white like a movie star and fans can download his rap song, “Viva HC!” as a cellphone ringtone.

But Strache lacks Haider’s chameleon-like qualities and rhetorical prowess, analysts say, and his party has so far failed to attract the more moderate right-wing voters that opt for Alliance or the conservatives.

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OPPOSITION OR GOVERNMENT?

Alliance may seek to tie up with Freedom to survive at a national polls but Freedom will probably turn them down.

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Freedom can pick up votes from the dying Alliance party and gain even more support.

Together the two parties captured nearly a third of the vote in the 2008 national elections, two weeks before Haider died at the age of 58.

Still, analysts say Freedom will struggle to enter power at the next national election even if it does absorb the Alliance.

The governing center parties have ruled out cooperation with the far right, which calls for a halt to immigration and a new government department in charge of repatriating foreigners.

In the long term Freedom will have to make the choice between being a haven for protest voters or a party which could enter government by appealing to a wider range of voters and other political parties, essential for coalition-building.

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