RIGHT TURN IN AUSTRIA - the Haider Chronicles

By Pfaff, William | Commonweal, February 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

RIGHT TURN IN AUSTRIA - the Haider Chronicles


Pfaff, William, Commonweal


The European Union's reaction to the Haider affair in Austria has expressed fine sentiments about democracy but offends the fundamental democratic principle that the popular will, expressed in an election, deserves respect. Great pressure was placed on Austria to block the government coalition between Joerg Haider's right-wing Austrian Freedom party and the mainstream conservative People's party. This was the only governing coalition on offer, the People's party and the Social Democrats having failed to agree to form a government. Moreover, it was the coalition the Austrian public had effectively voted for.

Haider's party won 26.91 percent of the vote in the last legislative election, marginally more than the vote given the mainstream conservatives, who for the past thirteen years governed the country in coalition with the Social Democrats. (The last-named led in October's election, with 33.11 percent of the total.) The clear intention of those who voted for the Freedom party was to prevent another People's-Social Democratic government. The two parties have ruled Austria since World War II, either in coalition or in what may be called collusion, with the country's institutions and posts of power shared proportionately between the ruling parties. That corrupting situation, born of electoral proportional representation, has for years tended to stifle clear-cut policy debate and a real choice in national direction. Haider is not a man any democrat is pleased to see as a major figure in Austrian politics, but the collaboration of the two established parties invited a populist reaction of just this kind.

Haider's policies bear the taint of xenophobia, and his speeches have regularly included ostensible slips of the tongue that bring to mind the Nazi rhetoric of the past. His conduct as president of the state of Carinthia, where he chose also to make himself minister of culture, has justified concern about his political methods and ambitions. He is a talented orator with demagogic skills. Serious people in Vienna consider him an unstable and dangerous man. However, his hostility to further European integration and his call for new limits on immigration are no more extreme than positions taken by mainstream political figures elsewhere in the European Union. There is, in fact, a European consensus today on the need for new common controls on immigration.

Haider has populist counterparts elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. There is no racist taint to Ross Perot or Patrick Buchanan's hostility to easy immigration to the United States, but the two represent a current of populist nationalism similar to that tapped by Haider in Austria, by Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and by the Zurich businessman Christoph Blocher, whose nationalist and xenophobic party recently succeeded in Switzerland's national elections. …

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