Joerg Haider in historical perspective
The View from Austria.
The coalition government, Haider included, should be allowed to rule
Melanie A. Sully
Washington Post National Weekly Edition, February 28, 2000
Reprinted on HABSBURG with the permission of the author
ã Melanie A. Sully. All Rights Reserved
(VIENNA) Many Austrians, among whom I have lived since 1988, woke up one morning three weeks ago feeling like so many pariahs and wondering what they had done wrong. They had simply formed a new government, they were quick to point out, following democratic elections last fall. But it is a government that includes the radical Freedom Party; led by the controversial Joerg Haider, and that doesn't sit well with the European Union's 14 other member nations.
The unprecedented unanimity with which other countries have condemned the new coalition government has left Austrians bewildered, confused and angry. Where was the single-voice outcry of the EU when people were being murdered, raped and mutilated in Kosovo, or now in Chechnya, they ask? Since when is conducting a democratic election, however contentious, grounds for ostracizing a country?
Behind the bitter defensiveness of this Austrian backlash lie some questions that demand further scrutinyby both Austrians and outside observers. It's time to examine what Haider's assumption of power says about the Austrian political system, whether the charismatic and outspoken Haider is a real danger, or whether Austria is paying belatedly for a Nazi past it has consistentlyand shamefullyfailed to confront.
The rise of the Freedom Party has certainly shaken the cozy postwar consensus of the Austrian establishment. Haiders brand of right-radical populism, with its sound-bite rhetoric, has struck a chord with people here who feel let down by the old parties. For as long as many voters can remember, the country has been dominated by the Socialist Democratic Party of Austria, which has been out of power for a total of only four years since 1945.
The Socialists appeared to many here to have become smug, even a little arrogant, in office: Their only big idea of late seemed to be to stay in power.
Now all that is gone. And disquiet certainly accompanies the change. The reason for this apprehension is Haider himself, who has been variously described both inside and outside the country as a "designer fascist," a neo-Nazi and a political chameleon.
Haider's controversial and insensitive comments about the Nazi past and the Holocaust are by now well known: He contrasted the Socialist-led government's failure on jobs with the Nazis' orderly employment policy; and, in, a speech before veterans of the Waffen SS, he apparently referred to members of that feared branch of the Nazi organization as "decent men of character." He has apologized so often, so routinely, for such blunders that one wonders how much his explanations are worth.
The truth is that trying to follow Haider's politics, as I have done for the past 15 years, is like shooting at a moving target. He has appealed to the middle class, farmers, workers, anti-clerics and Catholics, and even made a bid for the Jewish vote. Once a fin of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," he is now more impressed with Britain's Tony Blair and the politics of the Third Way. The Blairite mantra of "what counts is what works" underpins a melange of ideas that are held together by Haider's charismatic personality.
What, then, is to be made of this charming chameleon? I well remember the first time I saw him, during an election campaign meeting in November 1986. On that rainy, fall day, as I watched him across the crowd of applauding onlookers, I was immediately struck by the man's seductive oratory. That characteristic has dangerous connotations in Europe, of course. But in Haider's case, there is no consistent policy underpinning it The Freedom Party is not rightist in the traditional Anglo-American sense of the word. It rejects the reintroduction of the death penalty for example, and abortion is a non-issue. Its appeal is not rigid ideology, but flexibility. Haider's genius for adaptability has consistently bothered critics who wonder what he really stands for. Asked once whether his party was on the right, he replied, "We're neither right nor left, were just in front." Even Haider's troubling anti-immigrant stance finds parallels in other European countriesand resonates with some mainstream voters here who lament the loss of cultural identity Now, in order to reassure the international community, the new government has issued a declaration pledging its commitment to tolerance, human rights, democracy and religious freedom.
But, while the political implications of Haiders rise to power remain murky, Austrians are polarized over the Haider phenomenon, just as they were during the Kurt Waldheim affair l4 years ago.
Families and good friends find themselves bitterly split over such an emotional topic. Rational political debate has become a thing of the past. Conversations quickly degenerate into name-calling. If you are not overtly opposed to Haider, the reasoning goes, you must be in favor of him. I listened recently as one person angrily dismissed another as "just a fascist."
Meanwhile, when dusk falls in Vienna, marchers still emerge on the streets to protest Haiders role in the new coalition. Banging drums, blowing whistles, carrying candles and red flags, they march tirelessly between the parliament building, the chancellery and the television station, as they have done every night since the formation of the new government.
By morning, quiet returns, the rubbish has been cleared up and there is little evidence of protest.
These vociferous demonstrations, which include many artists and intellectuals who fear they may lose their generous government subsidies, obscure more deeply held views. Supporters of Haider now keep silent about their loyalties, and there are few who will openly say they voted for the Freedom Party. Perhaps thats not surprising, given that some who have expressed interest in the party have woken up to find swastikas on their doors. Nevertheless, 27 percent of Austrians voted for Haiders party, making it the second strongest political force in the country. The new coalition has the support of more than 50 percent of the population.
That doesnt mean that Haiders new prominence will lead to dramatic political change. The Christian Democrats hold key posts and ministries in the new government, including the chancellorship, foreign affairs, education and economics, as well as home affairs.
There are sufficient checks and balances within the Austrian parliamentary system to prevent a tidal wave of extremism. (A two-thirds majority is required in parliament to make any constitutional changeand that would mean including the Socialists; all new laws also require the signature of the federal president.) Whats more, in three years, there will be new elections, and the people will be able to decide on the merits, or otherwise, of this new coalition government.
In the meantime, the EUs decision to speak as one, against one of its own, is having its own fallout. It has given birth to a new "Euroskepticism" here. Supporters as well as detractors of the Freedom Party say that the EU has meddled too much in the domestic affairs of a member state. A petitionorganized by groups that opposed Austria's EU membershipis circulating throughout the country, calling for Austrias withdrawal from the Union. Just two weeks ago, I watched a protest group gathered in an underground shopping precinct demanding that Austria pull out.
It's strange to hear that sentiment so widely promulgated here, of all places: Since joining the EU in 1995 Austria has been one of the most ardent supporters of European unity and one of the EUs most loyal members. The change in mood is a direct and bitter response to the heavy-handed tactics of the EU leadership in Brussels.
The immediate risk, it seems to me, lies in applying such external pressure to overturn the democratic will of the people. It has already caused many Austrians to back away from the rest of Europe; it may eventually make them rally around the very man the EU shuns. There is also a second loss that we feel keenly hereof perspective and of objective political debate. Indeed, the response to Haider gives more cause for concern than Haider himself. For the sake of democracy, Austria's coalition government should be given a chance to rule.