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March 08, 2004

The Comeback, All Over Again

Joerg Haider, the politician the west loves to hate, has risen to power again with his party’s success in the Carinthia elections. His right wing populism led to EU sanctions against Austria back in 2000 and his inflammatory rhetoric remains a legacy.

Out here in our little alpine village, folks are puzzled. Locals here said that Haider should get out of politics and stay out. He’s been seen as something of an embarrassment in our socially conservative but environmentally green region. My neighbors insist that he’s the voice of the fringe, doesn’t wield that much power and shouldn’t be perceived as the voice of greater Austria.

But when Haider speaks, the world press sits up and pays attention as his handsome features are splashed on the international front pages. His party's success will likely be seen as the rise of the far right - again.

Unfortunately, my grasp of German is such that reading local political analysis eludes me. I have to settle for drawing my own ill-informed conclusions from conversation and the foreign press.

Haider is tan, charismatic, and he’s got movie star looks. He’s a populist who thinks that the rights of Austrians have primacy over that of the EU. Like many Austrians, he was anti-EU, thinking that joining the union would dilute the power of Austrian citizens to control their own economy and resources. He’s a nationalist who doesn’t really care that much what the world thinks of his behavior - witness his trip to Iraq just before the war.

The Austrians I know tend to dismiss Haider’s popularity with a shrug. They say that he’d only be the governor and doesn’t affect national policy. To me, that’s a little like dismissing the Governor of California. Here’s a guy with strong party ties, influence, and control over a large portion of the country; all that and the command of the international media. I’m not so willing to just look away. I see Haider’s popularity as a resurging interest in nationalist and xenophobic policies. The one bit I was able to glean from the German language press is significant: Haider’s success is a party success, meaning his party may have a shot at unseating the moderates currently in power nationally.

The thing that frightens me is not so much Haider himself, but that a population would see fit to elect him. I used to think of him as a sort of Ross Perot character, waiting to see what kind of crazy thing he would say next. But Haider seems to have learned to tone it down a little. After a few years of gathering dust and derision, he appears tanned, rested, and ready for the spotlight again.

Moderate thinking Austrians will protest the attention. “He’s not us! He doesn’t represent us!” they’ll insist. I object. As an American, I constantly make the same statement about the President of the United States, but it doesn’t change the fact that George W. Bush and his party are running my country right now.

There’s an interesting (though somewhat dated - some dead links) Q and A about Austria and Haider here.

Posted by pam at March 8, 2004 11:15 PM | TrackBack
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