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No. 3, February 2000
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Austria in search of a new government  
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Before he was elected President of Austria, Thomas Klestil avoided attacking Jörg Haider's FPÖ. On the contrary, he affirmed that all major Austrian parties were fit for opposition or for government. Only in recent months has his aversion towards the FPÖ and its chairman become manifest. It is only today that Klestil fears for Austria's international image if the FPÖ is part of a coalition governement. But SPÖ and ÖVP could not find common ground for a new coalition. Moreover, ÖVP and FPÖ were not willing to tolerate an SPÖ minority government. So all of Klestil strategies to isolate the FPÖ failed. The only possible solution seems to be a coalition between the Conservatives and Haider's party.
 
The FPÖ is neither a neo-nazi nor an extreme right-wing party, but a "liberal" one with a nationalistic wing and a populist leader. Jörg Haider and other representatives of the FPÖ have gained notoriety for their remarks on immigrants, Nazi Germany, the SS and Hitler's legacy. At the same time, one cannot say that Haider is anti-semitic. His father was in the SA until its dissolution and, after a troubled period, he became a minor Nazi official. As far as we know, he was not involved in war crimes. His family background explains Haider's need to defend the Nazi-generation. During his politial education, former Nazis were among his mentors. In 1999 Haider and the FPÖ ran a xenophobic electoral campaign, verbally attacking foreigners and persons seeking political asylum.
 
Is it shocking that Haider's FPÖ should now get politically rewarded for its dirty campaigns? Yes. Is this the beginning of another nazi-era in Austria? No. Firstly, Austria is part of the European Union and a democratic and liberal state. Secondly, the FPÖ is partly xenophobic but at the same time economically more liberal than the ruling parties. Thirdly, the main reason for Haiders success does not lie in his remarks on foreigners but in the dissatisfaction of important sections of the Austrian voters with the established coalition of Social Democrats and Conservatives. Austria is a party state. The two big parties dominate the political, economic, social and cultural systems of the country. SPÖ and ÖVP not only largely decide who is at the top of important (state and former state) enterprises, but for instance also who the key figures at public colleges are. In some cases party politics even intervenes in the employment of cleaners in public schools! The SPÖ has been in power for 30 years. Power corrupts - and thirty years in power corrupt greatly. Austria urgently needs a political change.
 
Is the FPÖ a credible alternative? Jörg Haider is a populist and charismatic leader. He is the key figure for change. If SPÖ and ÖVP went on governing, they would just play into the hands of Haider. The FPÖ would gain even more support from voters. It seems best to integrate him now; there is no alternative. But Haider is dangerous in the sense that he is capable of changing his opinion on most important political subjects from one day to another. Furthermore, the FPÖ's success is largely tied to the person of Jörg Haider. The party has grown too rapidly in recent years. Therefore, a lot of party members had the chance to make rapid careers that would normally not have been possible. In other words, behind the big back of Haider many politicians of doubtful competency could rise to important positions. And who will succed Haider if he steps down one day?
 
The FPÖ's electoral posters against persons seeking poltical asylum and against immigrants living in Austria attracted a lot of right-wing political footsoldiers to the party. But there are of course no paramilitary organizations in Austria today as there were in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the SA terrorised the population and reigned in the streets long before the Nazis came to power (by the way, also the communists had their share in street terror in those years). Today's situation cannot be compared to the years after the 1929 economic crash since Austrians now benefit from substantial unemployment benefits, the unemployment rate is relatively low and GDP per capita is higher than ever. Although the information revolution and globalization create sentiments of insecurity among voters, there is no economic crisis in Austria today - only a political one.
 
The leader of the Conservative party, Wolfgang Schüssel, made it clear that there will only be a coalition with the FPÖ if this party accepts that Austria is a part of the European Union and if Austria continues to respect human rights and to accept people in need of political asylum. On the ÖVP's agenda are also - as on the FPÖs - important economic reforms. All this sounds reasonable. If Haider's party should break away from this path, the ÖVP could immediately leave the coalition. The FPÖ's period in power would instantly be over.
 
But the future does not look to bright for several reasons: Schüssel clearly said before and after the elections of October 3 that the ÖVP would go into opposition if it became the third party in Austria behind the FPÖ. And that is what happened - even if only by a few votes. If Schüssel forms a coalition government with the FPÖ now, his credibility will suffer. Should this new center-right -coalition pass important reforms and become a success, voters could see in Haider the father of that success and punish Schüssel for breaking his promise. Whatever happens in the future, the FPÖ and its populist leader will apparently remain on the winning side.

Regarding Jörg Haider's life, see Christa Zöchling's biography (no masterpiece of analysis but containing a lot of valuable information), in German.
 
Have a look at our Links-page for links to the main Austrian political parties and newspapers.
 

 
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The hysterical reactions of foreign leaders to the FPÖ's possible rise to power are exagerated. There is no neo-nazi scene in Austria today and no real danger for democracy. Where were these European leaders when Mitterand took the Communists into his government in the early 1980s, long before the downfall of communism? A lot of Western countries don't have an irreproachable record regarding the treatment of foreigners. French minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement is known for his nationalistic opinions. Conservative Roland Koch in the German region of Hesse won his regional elections with a dirty electoral campaign directed against immigrants. Maybe some leaders think Austria's situation is comparable to their country's. France has important parties on the extreme right. Haider is no pleasant political figure, but he is no Hitler and no danger to Europe. His remarks on the "corrupt Belgian government" and on the French President Chirac as a man who made almost all mistakes possible in recent years are not statesmanlike. To put it bluntly: Haider is the expression of our times were populists like Clinton or Schröder dominate the political scene. The different thing about Haider is that he comes from the political right and not from the left. Who remembers what positions German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had only ten years ago?
 
Still: Haider and his party must accept Schüssel's list of conditions for the formation of a coalition government. On this basis, Europe can live with the FPÖ in power (by the way: Haider won't be part of the government, but can of course influence its fate over his men). Austria is without a government since October 3, 1999. The parliament has still to decide on this year's budget and the government should attack serious reforms since, in comparison with Europe, it is among the countries with the highest budget deficit and has the youngest pensioners. It will soon become clear whether the new center-right government is capable of resolving the country's main problems or not.

www.cosmopolis.ch
No. 3, February 2000
current edition & archives
Art  Film  Music  History  Politics  All Previous Articles
Links  For Advertisers  Feedback  German edition  Travel

Copyright 2000  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.