No Surprises as Haider U-Turns Again | Current Affairs | DW | 26.11.2002
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Current Affairs

No Surprises as Haider U-Turns Again

In a move that reflects his favored leisure activity, Austria's most infamous bungee-jumper Jörg Haider has bounced back from his decision to quit politics to continue his controversial career.

Guess who's back?

Guess who's back?

His detractors call him a 'yuppie fascist', a 'xenophobic opportunist' and a 'Nazi apologist'; his supporters refer to him as a considerate person with great imagination and his wife calls him a man who has become more romantic with the years. Love him or hate him, everyone has an opinion on Jörg Haider.

He says all the wrong things - then he says all the right things. He is either a brash, populist politician or a racist who supports aspects of Nazism. Either way, he refuses to be ignored or go away. He is the most prominent far-right fly in Europe's ointment.

The man who has courted controversy throughout his career added yet another twist to his tale on Monday when he retracted his resignation as Governor of the southern Austrian stronghold of Carinthia to head back into the political fray.

Haider, the architect of the far-right Freedom Party's rise to power, had decided to quit after his party received a crushing blow in Sunday's general elections and conceded defeat to coalition partners, the conservative People's Party.

Back from the brink once again, Haider doesn't give up

FPÖ Pressekonferenz mit Susanne Riess-Passer

Riess-Passer: Known as 'the King's Cobra' when she was Haider's deputy.

It's not the first time Haider has done a U-turn. He resigned as head of the party in 2000, weeks after it entered the coalition government. He handed over the reins of the party to vice-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer (photo), and publicly focused on his southern stronghold of Carinthia. But, after a failed attempt to take back the leadership, Haider continued to wield considerable influence behind the scenes.

The move to step back from leadership has done nothing to keep Haider out of the pages of the press; a place he has inhabited since his rise to power began 26 years ago.

The son of Nazi party officials, Haider spent his early days in the Austrian town of Bad Goisern before leaving for Vienna to study law. It was there that he joined the Freedom Party in 1976. He became its leader 10 years later, when the party was barely getting 5 percent at the polls. Under his influence, the party has increased that support to 28 percent in the last 14 years.

Freedom Party's election caused outrage across Europe

In that time, Haider has caused much sensation, flattering and offending in equal measure. When the Freedom Party came to power, the EU broke off bilateral relations with Austria, imposed sanctions on it and enforced diplomatic isolation. Haider and his runaway mouth were cited as the cause for all this friction.

His misdemeanors are legion but the most infamous are those connected with his opinions about the Nazis. During his first stint as governor of Carinthia in 1989, Haider said that the Third Reich had "a positive economic policy" which wiped out unemployment in Germany. His tenure ended abruptly and he was forced to resign

A few years later, he described World War II concentration camps as "punishment camps" and said the Nazi SS was "a part of the German army that should be honored". He has also compared the deportation of Jews by the Nazis to the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war.

In a Time Magazine interview at the time, Haider attempted to defend himself: " As I have said before, I have made some mistakes in the past and I regret this and I apologize for having wounded people. I have made it clear that the Freedom Party has a clear distance from all ideas like nationalism and National Socialism."

'Dirty' speech landed Haider in court but he left clean

But in 2001, he was at it again. Haider avoided legal action after an Austrian court threw out a complaint of anti-Semitism against him. The leader of Austria's Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, had accused Haider of telling a cheering crowd that he could "not understand how someone called Ariel could have so much dirt sticking to him". Haider claimed that it was a pun on words as Ariel is also a brand of washing powder, but critics said it was a clear reference to the Nazi belief that Jews were dirty.

Saddam Hussein mit Thumbnail

"Yoo-hoo! Jorg! Over here!"

Variety seems to be the spice of life for Haider. When he's not being named in football bribing scandals, cited in accusations of anti-Semitism and racism - he's taking business trips to Libya and Iraq to buy cheap fuel for the Carinthians and flying on "secret missions" to Moscow by the pistol manufacturer Gaston Glock, to look at buying Soviet fighter jets.

Nothing more than a cunning opportunist?

Although demonized by many, others inside and outside see him not only as a fascist but only as a cunning opportunist. An editorial in the Austrian daily Die Presse once said of him: "He's a racist if it serves his purposes; he's a xenophobe if it serves his purposes; he's pro-Europe if it serves his purposes; and anti-Europe if it serves his purposes. Haider would be orthodox communist if it helped him to get to power."

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