A Far-Right Populist Pounds at Austria's Gates Jorg Haider - 'Hitler's Grandson' to Critics, 'Savior of the Working Class' to Supporters - Rises Fast in the Polls. Series: Europe's Angry Nationalists: Second of a Series. the First Story Appeared Yesterday

By Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Far-Right Populist Pounds at Austria's Gates Jorg Haider - 'Hitler's Grandson' to Critics, 'Savior of the Working Class' to Supporters - Rises Fast in the Polls. Series: Europe's Angry Nationalists: Second of a Series. the First Story Appeared Yesterday


Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


From the point of view of personal pedigree, Jorg Haider fits the bill perfectly as leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party. His father volunteered to be a Nazi stormtrooper, his mother was a member of the Nazi League of German Maidens, and his multimillion-dollar fortune is based on an estate confiscated from a Jewish family under Adolf Hitler's rule.

But Mr. Haider has not led his party from a 4 percent rating in the polls 10 years ago to 28 percent today just by being "Hitler's grandson," as his critics brand him. He is hammering on the gates of Austria's hidebound political system at the head of an angry army of blue-collar workers who fear they might lose their jobs, resent government corruption, and worry what economic globalization will do to their lives.

The Freedom Party "combines traditional right-wing politics - and in Austria that includes Nazi sentiment - with a protest movement against the elitism of Austrian politics, a protest by the losers in the modernization process," says Anton Pelinka, a political analyst at Innsbruck University. "It is a catch-all party. But its most significant uniting element is xenophobia." In the small market town of Horn one recent afternoon, as Freedom Party candidate Bernhard Gratzer campaigned in the cobblestoned main square for local elections, he made antipathy toward foreigners, and a halt to immigration, his central message. "We've got the illegals coming in from the south, and the criminals coming in from the east," Mr. Gratzer told the crowd. "We say a clear 'No.' We don't need any more of them." Horn is just 20 miles from the Czech border, and since the Iron Curtain opened, Eastern Europeans have poured into Austria - legally and illegally - in search of work. Their presence has shaken the conservative Austrians, and Gratzer's speech was well received. "Border security and expanding the European Union to the East - those are my two biggest worries," says Walter Zobinger, a retired salesman in the audience who said he planned to vote for Gratzer. "A lot of Czechs and Poles come across to steal cars, and there have been a lot of break-ins where I live." The farmers making up the crowd in Horn were mostly worried that cheap agricultural imports from Eastern Europe would force their produce prices down. In Vienna and other cities, industrial workers are concerned that cheap labor from Eastern Europe will force their wages down, or even cost them their jobs. The 4.4 percent unemployment rate is low by European standards, but unusually high for Austria. A dynamic new voice Understanding those worries, and giving them voice, is Haider's great talent. Youthful and dynamic - he enjoys rock climbing and once ran the New York marathon - he communicates easily with voters, often relaxing into local dialect and making crowds laugh. In Horn recently to support Gratzer's candidacy, Haider hit another of the hot buttons that move an increasing number of Austrians - the privileges politicians have granted themselves and supporters under the country's proporz system. Since World War II, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists - currently allied in a "grand coalition" government - have divided the spoils of power in a cozy tradition of mutual back-scratching. …

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A Far-Right Populist Pounds at Austria's Gates Jorg Haider - 'Hitler's Grandson' to Critics, 'Savior of the Working Class' to Supporters - Rises Fast in the Polls. Series: Europe's Angry Nationalists: Second of a Series. the First Story Appeared Yesterday
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