Austria′s Right-Winger Haider on the Decline | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.11.2005
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Austria's Right-Winger Haider on the Decline

Call it a case of schadenfreude, but many in Austria and elsewhere are applauding the political downward spiral of infamous right-wing leader Jörg Haider.

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Haider may have had his day in Austrian politics

Successive election defeats appear to have seriously damaged the political career of Jörg Haider, the veteran radical-right leader, who has announced his retirement at the age of 56 and whose party is fast withering away.

"Haider's star has definitely waned," said political analyst Anton Pelinka. "He has had his day, and he cannot pull things off any more, at least outside his fiefdom in Carinthia," the southern province where he is governor.

According to the daily Die Presse, "Jörg Haider can no longer halt the defeat of his party, which he himself touched off by dividing" the extreme right in April.

Was once savior of extreme right

Haider defected from his Freedom Party (FPÖ) April 4 to form a new Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ), which promised to support the ruling coalition.

Wolfgang Schüssel gewinnt in Österreich

Austrian chancellor and leader of the People's Party Wolfgang Schüssel entered into alliance with Haider

For a long time, the charismatic Haider was the savior of the extreme right when it was in difficulty, but today "it is doubtful that anyone would still call on him for help," Die Presse added.

Haider, then a young populist who played on xenophobic and anti-EU fears and stirred up nostalgia for certain aspects of the country's Nazi past, took over the Freedom Party in 1986 and went from success to success.

Losing the votes

The FPÖ had 5 percent of the vote when Haider assumed the leadership and went on to grab 27 percent in the 1999 legislative elections, swelling into Austria's second biggest party.

But since the extreme right entered government in 2000 in coalition with the mainstream conservative People's Party (ÖVP) of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, it has steadily lost popularity and votes in subsequent elections.

Three government ministers and three secretaries of state belong to Haider's current Alliance. But on October 23, the Alliance obtained only 1.7 percent of the popular vote in Haider's Carinthia stronghold and a mere 1.1 percent in Vienna.

On top of this, Haider has been forced to watch the relative success in Vienna of his former protegé, now his bitter rival, Heinz-Christian Strache. Under Strache's energetic leadership, the Freedom Party won 15 percent of the vote in Vienna following a xenophobic campaign largely directed against the Turkish minority.

Rival more "primitive"

The magazine News described the 36-year-old Strache as "the new Haider," but Pelinka added that Strache was "more primitive." Strache, who is on the extreme right of his party, was elected to the leadership after Haider's defection, replacing Ursula Haubner, Haider's sister and minister of social affairs, who was among the party members who left to form the Alliance.

Österreichische Fahne vor dem Schloß Belvedere

Austrian voters are increasingly shunning Haider

The setbacks for his party led Haider to announce that he would soon quit the central leadership of the party, leaving it in the hands of Vice Chancellor Hubert Gobach.

It will not be the first time that Haider has left politics in this way, but he has always managed to come back in a leadership capacity a month or so later.

Lack of focus

Analysts said the Alliance appears to have become marginalized and the coalition government weakened as a result. But they said legislative elections, scheduled to take place in a year's time, were unlikely to be brought forward.

Pelinka said the Alliance was lacking a focused image.

"If the BZÖ wants to present itself as a conservative party, the People's Party is more credible, and if it wants to play on the extreme right register, the old FPÖ is better placed to do that because it is more violent," Pelinka said.

Haider's former Freedom Party lost ground heavily in the states of Styria and Burgenland, but achieved what the magazine Profil called a "phenomenal" result in Vienna.

Pelinka, however, said the result was not as good as all that because "with the same slogans, it managed to win 20 percent of the vote in 2001" and this share shrank by 5 percentage points in the October 23 election.

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