Single tragic events can rarely change history. Even more rarely can such events change history for the better. But this is nonetheless what may have happened on the night of Friday, October 10th, when the infamous Austrian right-wing extremist Jörg Haider died in a car crash on the eve of one of his greatest political triumphs.
Controversial from the start of his public career, Haider came to be known internationally–and beloved by many domestically–for his off-color remarks about the Nazi era. At a commemoration for veterans of the SS, Haider once remarked: “It is good that there still are decent people in our world who have a character which stands by its convictions even in the face of the strongest counter-current; people who have remained faithful to their convictions until the present day.”
This remark was not what in American political discourse is known as a gaffe. Quite on the contrary, it was part of a deliberate–and worryingly successful–strategy to exploit Austria’s deeply ambivalent relationship to its Nazi past for political gain. This strategy included coded references which in Austria’s political discourse were plain as day. Like, for example, Haider’s persistent invocations against the machinations of U.S.-based “East Coasters” (in plainer language: New York Jews).
Haider’s enjoyed a huge success in 1999, when, under his leadership, the populist FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) became Austria’s second-strongest party in an upset election which shook the foundations of the country’s political establishment. The conservative ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) agreed to a coalition government with Haider’s party. In protest, the then-14 EU countries reduced intergovernmental contacts with Austria to a bare minimum, and Israel recalled her ambassador.
But Haider’s most impressive triumph came as recently as September 28th. After breaking with the FPÖ–the party he himself had led and refashioned–in 2005, Haider founded his own movement, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Building on his power base as the Prime Minister of Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost federal state, Haider, against the odds, turned the BZÖ into a national political force in its own right. At the recent national elections, his movement carried off 10.7% of the vote. Then, only few days before his sudden death, Haider celebrated an unexpected rapprochement with the FPÖ. Taken together, the populist movements either shaped or founded by Haider were once again Austria’s second-biggest political force–and seemed in a stronger position than ever.
The question, then, is: how will Austria’s–and Europe’s–far Right movements fare after Haider? Does his death matter? The tentative answer: yes. Far-right movements are a pan-European phenomenon. The strength of right-wing extremism is worrying in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, and even liberal Denmark. Yet such movements have (so far) failed to gain the kind of deep-rooted support in the population which assures voter loyalty beyond the demise of a totemic figurehead. The French voted for the charismatic Jean-Marie Le Pen more than for his disreputable Front National; similarly, the Swiss are seduced more by the magnetism of Christoph Blocher than by the policy platform of his Swiss People’s Party. Same goes for the Danish Pia Kjaersgaard and her Danish People’s Party. For all their strength, the European far-right movements continue to be dependent on their leaders. At a time when Le Pen is evidently beyond his prime and the very fact of their political success is increasingly giving Blocher and Gianfranco Fini (of Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale) the appearance of being old-style apparatchiks, this poses serious challenges to their movement. Haider, with the looks of a model and the easy charm of a ski instructor, probably was the European right’s greatest political talent. His death, tragic as it is, opens a strategic bracket of opportunity to anti-extremist forces in Austria and beyond.
The question is whether moderate parties will be able to seize upon this opportunity. Europe’s center-left and center-right have seemed, frankly, out of ideas in recent decades. Their lackluster politics-as-usual has been unable to retain the loyalty of their traditional electorates. On top of this, they have lacked a vision for how to combat the rise of worrying forces like those that found a voice in the BZÖ. Now, with much of the far right’s personnel in disarray or decline, Europe’s centrists have been handed a golden opportunity to wage a proactive battle for hearts and minds. Once another set of Haiders arrive on the scene, they will face, with any luck, a strong defense–and find it far more difficult to gain their former political purchase. It is up to the moderate political establishment to act now and convert this tragedy into a reason for guarded optimism.