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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 15:21 GMT
Haider's enduring appeal
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Austrian pollsters are scratching their heads.

Joerg Haider, the charismatic nationalist associated with controversial causes like Saddam Hussein and Nazi employment policy, was meant to have slipped from power in local elections at the weekend as part of the general plummet in popularity of his far-right Freedom Party.

Joerg Haider
Haider's charm and populism remain a winning formula
But he looks likely to hang on to his job as governor of the southern Austrian province of Carinthia.

He managed not just to maintain the share of the vote he won in 1999, when Carinthians last held regional elections, but even to marginally increase his party's standing.

Five years ago, that poll success was followed by an upsurge in popularity for his anti-immigrant, anti-Europe Freedom Party around the country, climaxing with its inclusion in the national government.

This prompted the European Union to take the unprecedented step of imposing diplomatic sanctions on a member state.

The party's star has subsequently faded.

But as Sunday's vote makes clear, the perma-tanned politician's combination of populism, charm and high-necked shirts remains a winning formula - fuelling speculation that the party which once prompted European uproar could be set for a comeback.

Different tune

At one level, Mr Haider appears to have changed his electoral tune. The anti-immigration slogans, the inflammatory remarks about Nazis and prominent Jews played no part in this election campaign, which focused on staples such as pensions and jobs, tourism and taxes.

Indeed the man whose party once used posters in an election campaign warning of Ueberfremdung - a word last used by the Nazis to describe the country being ''overrun with foreigners" - has been busy trying to strike a deal with Carinthian minority groups which would see their language and identity protected.

Analysts, however, do not see his latest manoeuvres as inconsistent. At the heart of Mr Haider's successes over the years, they say, is an innate sense of the issues which touch the working classes and a canny ability to play at being both establishment and anti-establishment.

Haider's claim on the leadership is beyond question
Michael Voelker
Der Standard
Observers have noted with varying degrees of admiration how Mr Haider has skilfully claimed credit for popular initiatives like tax cuts proposed by conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's government, in which Mr Haider's Freedom Party serves as a junior partner.

At the same time he has successfully distanced himself from widely hated reforms of the pension system - and indeed used the unpopularity of the measures to his own advantage.

"This 42% who voted for Haider - they aren't all right wingers. They are people who feel let down by the federal government, and are unhappy with the reform of the social security system," says political analyst Josef Haslinger.

Polling organisations are explaining the inconsistency between their predicted Social Democrat victory and Mr Haider's triumph by reference to an increasing number of what they describe as "last-minute voters".

Mr Haider may have lost many voters over the years, but he has made up for these losses by poaching other peoples'. In this election, according to the Sora Institute, some 24,000 voters crossed from Chancellor Schuessel's conservative People's Party to cast their ballot for the Freedom Party.

"Haider has always been able to gather protest voters," says Mr Haslinger. "When he speaks to the workers, he speaks like a Social Democrat, but he can also speak very conservatively, and maintain this nationalist touch. Above all, he is a political opportunist."

Regional sway

What Mr Haider's Carinthian successes will mean for the party at large is as yet unclear.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel may be relieved that Mr Haider - whose interference brought down the government in 2002 - will remain busy in his southern stronghold, and unable to meddle much in federal affairs.

However, some observers warn Mr Schuessel against premature celebration, cautioning that Sunday's showing will have strengthened the hand of Mr Haider, who handed over the party leadership in 2000 in a bid to abate international hostility to his party's presence in government.

"Haider will stay in Carinthia - but he will once again take over the reins of the party," says Michael Voelker, a columnist at the Austrian daily Der Standard.

"His claim on the leadership is beyond question - none of the Freedomites can really contest it, least of all the lightweight cabinet members in Vienna."

Even if Mr Haider does not succeed in reviving the Freedom Party's flagging fortunes - to many observers he has already left a lasting legacy.

The Freedom Party was at the cutting edge of a rise of the right across Europe.

Despite their electoral successes, few of these parties have been able to maintain prolonged periods in government, if they have entered office at all.

But whether within government or kept far from it, they have frequently seen their policies absorbed by the mainstream, ruling parties, anxious to stave off what they see as the threat of the far-right.

The politician who cries wolf
26 Nov 02  |  Europe
Haider withdraws offer to quit
26 Nov 02  |  Europe
Taming Austria's far right
25 Nov 02  |  Europe
Joerg Haider's fall from grace
25 Nov 02  |  Europe

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