Austria′s Jörg Haider Fights for His Future | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 06.03.2004
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Austria's Jörg Haider Fights for His Future

The Alpine firebrand is fighting for survival. He's been busy pulling out his trademark populist tactics, but it might not be enough to get him reelected when his home state of Carinthia goes to the polls on Sunday.


Haider is campaigning to stay in the political spotlight

Jörg Haider is in for the fight of his life. When polls open in Sunday in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia, the far-right populist will be hoping he can hold onto his position as governor. For the Enfant terrible of the Alpine republic, the election will make or break his political career.

Based on opinion surveys, the 54-year old politician is in for a tough challenge from the Socialist Party (SPÖ), which is leading with the support of 39 percent of voters compared to Haider's Freedom Party (FPÖ) with 36 percent. A recent poll conducted by the newsmagazine Format shows that less than half of all Austrians believe in Haider's chances of reelection.

In the face of such statistics, the future looks pretty dim for the former FPÖ party leader. But Haider refuses to admit defeat before the last vote has been counted.

"I am certain I will be reelected," he said in typical confidence, hoping to revive Austrian's faith in him.

Rallying support from nationalists

Playing up his image as the hero of the "little people," Haider took to the campaign trail, traveling throughout the mountainous state, an entourage of yoddelers and dirndl dressed Alpine beauties accompanying him and helping to pass out stuffed animals, candy and other trinkets to supporters.

At every stop he pulled out the xenophobic rhetoric -- righteous anger at immigrants who steal Austrians' jobs and receive welfare funding.

"Those foreigners who do not work should not be allowed to benefit from state money to the detriment of hard-working Austrians," he said in the small town of Villach on Thursday. And the response was loud applause. The nationalism goes down well in the largely rural province.

Haider's no-holds-barred campaigning in the last several weeks has helped him gain points in the polls, which show him trailing behind the SPÖ but still way ahead of the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.

As for Haider's main competition, SPÖ candidate Peter Ambrozy, the local press describes him as "lacking in charm" -- hardly surprising compared to the charismatic incumbent. But that might not be enough to put Haider in the lead.

A return to national politics?

In characteristic Haider fashion, the extremes lie close together: Whereas a loss on Sunday would most likely spell the end of his political future, a reelection could be a ticket to a national comeback. Haider himself has already said he would use a victory in Carinthia as a springboard for jumping back into federal politics.

In 2000, after he led the FPÖ into the national government, he withdrew from Vienna and gave up his party leadership. Since then the FPÖ has remained a part of the ruling coalition with Schüssel's ÖVP, but has suffered a rapid decline in support. From the record 27 percent of votes it received in 2000, backing for the party has dwindled down to about 10 percent.

"I want to revive the FPÖ from Carinthia," Haider repeated in campaign speeches throughout the state.

A thorn in Vienna's south

Haider's loss in the southern state could therefore turn out to be Vienna's gain. Considered hard to control and a sworn enemy of Schüssel, Haider's xenophobic outbursts and political scandal riled the European Union so much that it slapped six months of sanctions on Austria in 2000 after the FPÖ entered the national government.

Since retreating from Vienna, Haider has continued accumulating a bad track record of embarrassing Austria with his brash populism. In December he shocked the international community by saying that morally there was little difference between U.S. President George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein, a remark he still refuses to retract.

"Hitler too arrived in power democratically," in 1933, he reminds reporters while politicians in Vienna shift uncomfortably on their seats and hope Haider's provocative statements and nationalist populism deter rather than attract voters this time around.

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