Austria: Jörg Haider’s Grasp for Power

Austria: Jörg Haider’s Grasp for Power

Many western liberals have always mistrusted the Austrian postwar conversion to liberal democracy, and recent political events appear to confirm their wariness. In the last year’s general elections the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FP) won 27 percent of the vote, beating the conservative People’s Party (VP), though by less than five hundred votes, and finishing in second place after the Social Democrats (SP). In January, the Conservatives provoked a final break with the SP, shattering the coalition that had ruled Austria for thirteen years. On February 4, they formed a new government with Jörg Haider’s FP. Of course, right-wing parties of this kind have been electorally successful in other European states—three weeks after Haider’s triumph, Christoph Blocher’s SVP won 23 percent in the Swiss elections on a similar platform. What is unique about the Austrian case is the steadiness of the FP’s ascent since 1986, the realistic possibility that it might become the strongest party in future elections, and the suicidal policies of Haider’s political opponents.

As I write this, Austria has plunged into the deepest foreign policy crisis of its postwar history. In January, the other fourteen governments in the Council of the European Union (EU) took the unprecedented step of threatening a member state with the suspension of bilateral contacts and a radical downscaling of diplomatic relations. When the major political forces in Austria abandoned their attempt to keep Haider’s party out of government, its ascent became a European concern. Paradoxically, shunning a member state is an important step forward in the process of European integration. There is nothing in the program of the new government that would jeopardize further economic integration or enlargement of the common market. But the EU has become a political project engaged in far-ranging legislative activity. A racist party in a national government participates also in governing the EU. Moreover, the EU is gradually moving toward common standards for fundamental rights and the treatment of minorities. The applicant states east of the former Iron Curtain will be tested by their performance in these areas. Putting Austria under quarantine draws a line. In the short run, this will make it difficult to cure the disease domestically. A bunker mentality provides fertile ground for Haider’s politics of resentment. But in the long run, Austria cannot afford to remain isolated in Europe.

Haider’s phenomenal success has led to three kinds of reaction. The first articulates Western doubts about Austria’s liberal democratic credentials. Especially in Israel and the United States, the recent events have raised concern and anger but little surprise. Haider stands for the ugly side of Austria—its Nazi past and its attempt after 1945 to avoid German-style Vergangenheitsbewältigung or longing to come to terms with the past by claiming to have been “Hitl...


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