2024 Austrian Elections: Remembering Jörg Haider – The Chancellor Austria Never Had

, by Konstantin Chopov

2024 Austrian Elections: Remembering Jörg Haider – The Chancellor Austria Never Had

Later this year, Austria will be holding its Parliamentary elections. However, this time, its outcome is expected to threaten the future of Austria and the future of Europe as a whole. The likely winner – Austrian Freedom Party or the FPÖ is a populist far-right and Eurosceptic political force consistently leading the polls with a historic 30% of the vote. In its program, FPÖ calls Austria "not a country of immigration,“and its current leader believes that it should be”up to the law to follow politics and not for politics to follow the law."

The current surge in FPÖ’s poll numbers is, to a significant extent, a product of a spectrum of factors that boosted the popularity of other far-right parties across the EU. This spectrum includes the economic consequences of the ongoing Conflict in Ukraine and the debates surrounding illegal migration.

In this article, I will argue that FPÖ’s ascendancy isn’t just a reflection of contemporary developments but is rooted in the party’s transformative history. The linchpin of this transformation is a man named Jörg Haider, who once could become Austria’s Chancellor and whose leadership of the FPÖ has irreversibly altered Austria’s and EU’s political landscape for decades to come. The impact of this controversial legacy is felt today as strongly as ever.

Austria after 1945: the birth of Proporz

To understand FPÖ’s transformation from a fringe element to a formidable force within Austrian political system, it is crucial to understand the nature and the origins of this system in the first place.

In 1945, Austria held its first democratic election after the Second World War with two main parties: People’s Party (ÖVP) – a moderate Christian Democratic party and Socialists (SPÖ) (later Social Democrats) – a center-left party recieving the largets vote shares. To overcome the turbulency of the post-war period, they unified in what has become known as the Grand Coalition. This unification has paved the way for a decades-long power duopoly that nurtured the Proporz – a system of proportional division of economic and political influence between ÖVP and SPÖ.

However, Austria’s complex and tragic past still haunted its politically moderate present, with about 500.000 former Nazis being restored in voting rights by 1949. Some representatives of the Grand Coalition attempted to appeal to former Nazis. Nevetheless, most politicians promoted the so-called ’victim thesis’ – the portrayal of Austria as a victim of Nazism. This portrayal angered the former Nazis, most of whom perceived Austria as Nazism’s “willing accomplice.” In addition, in its rhetoric, the Grand Coalition actively opposed pan-Germanism – a vision of Austria as a part of Greater Germany that justified Hitler’s 1938 Anschluss. Soon a Federation of Independents arose – Austria’s only pan-German political party was established to harbor the former Nazis, who felt alienated from and underrepresented within the Proporz. In 1956, it was renamed the Austrian Freedom Party.

The Haider Phenomenon

By the 1980s, the perception of pan-Germanism as a wholly redundant ideology has become a consensus within Austrian society. Such perception of one of its core beliefs led to FPÖ’s popularity plummeting to below 5%, creating a breeding ground for factionalism that ultimately brought the party to the brink of collapse. However, in 1986, FPÖ’s leader, Norbert Steger, was unexpectedly ousted and replaced by 34-year-old Jorg Haider. After cementing his power at the top of its hierarchy, Haider began radically transforming the FPÖ from a pan-German relic of the past into a dynamic “catch-all party”, simultaneously preserving its most fundamental objective – opposition to the Proporz.

Upon his accession, Haider ended FPÖ’s longtime feud with the Austrian Catholic Church, securing support from prominent clergy members and some Christian Democratic ÖVP voters. Haider also opposed Austria’s European integration, presenting the so-called Ausländer Problem (the ’foreigner problem’) as a principal cause of domestic job displacement. Capitalization on fear of Austrians losing their jobs to foreigners yielded its success and provided Haider with the support of blue–collar workforce – one of SPÖ’s primary voter demographics.

However, Haider was also a subject of significant controversy. Most notably, he referred to Nazi concentration camps as “punishment camps” and described members of the Waffen-SS as “decent people of good character.” He also vocally supported the 1986 presidential bid of Kurt Waldheim – a former official in Hitler’s military intelligence. Revival of the debates surrounding Austria’s complex historical past and Haider’s view of this past as something that doesn’t have to be confronted resonated with many voters within FPÖ’s base and the Grand Coalition.

Haider’s new strategy proved successful on national as well as local levels. From 1986 to 1999, FPÖ increased its national vote share to over 20%, with Haider himself being elected as Governor of Carinthia. According to exit polls conducted between 1990 and 1999, on average more than 63% of Austrians considered FPÖ as the only party capable of bringing the ’wind of change’. This has become known as the Haider Phenomenon that entailed the rapid revitalization of a party in decline and a significant shift of the traditionally moderate and duopolistic Austrian political landscape towards right-wing populism. The Haider Phenomenon also made Haider one of the founders of the contemporary European anti-establishment discourse along with Jean Marie Le Pen.

Institutionalization of the far right

In the 1999 election, the FPÖ obtained a historic victory, becoming the second-largest party in Austria after SPÖ. It entered a coalition with ÖVP, and Haider, the leader of the largest party in this coalition, was set to become Austria’s first third-party Chancellor. However, due to his controversial track record and consequential national and international pressure, he was barred from joining and heading the government. In 2000, Haider left FPÖ dissatisfied with its increasing convergence with the Austrian political establishment, and in 2008, he unexpectedly died in a car accident.

Some commentators characterized a coalition with ÖVP’s leader and prominent representative of the Austrian establishment – Wolfgang Schüssel, as a significant miscalculation that led to Haider’s political demise. Throughout FPÖ’s government stance, some officials were accused of abuse of power and conflicts of interests, something Haider campaigned against in the 1980s and 90s. Nonwithstanding, it could be argued that by joining the government in 1999, FPÖ asserted itself as one of the key players in Austrian and European politics of the 21st century, allowing Haider to institutionalize his “catch-all” strategy within the broader political system.

Overall, this article aims to do more than explore the profound damaging impact an FPÖ Chancellorship could have on European unity. It also seeks to demonstrate a single individual’s lasting influence on a nation’s political landscape. Today’s FPÖ, despite numerous leadership changes and scandals since Jörg Haider’s tenure, resignation and death, remains a party based on his controversial and polarizing vision. Yet, even if in 2024, the FPÖ emerges victorious, it faces a potential repeat of the 1999 scenario, where the pursuit of power could mean significant compromises, possibly at the expense of maintaining control of the Chancellorship. This raises a crucial question: Will the FPÖ be willing to make these sacrifices, or will we see Haider’s vision crystallize into Austria’s new policy direction? This will be something to look out for in the coming months!

Your comments

Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on gravatar.com (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom