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Monday, 31 January, 2000, 21:45 GMT
Haider's Austrian charm offensive

haider Joerg Haider: Making the far-right fun for some Austrians

By the BBC's Katya Adler

Joerg Haider, the controversial leader of Austria's Freedom Party, has turned 50.

Elaborate birthday celebrations were held at the weekend in Mr Haider's stronghold, Austria's southernmost province, Carinthia.

He even sang himself a happy birthday on Austria's main commercial radio station.

Mr Haider was given an Austrian flag on his birthday
Yet despite passing the half century mark, Mr Haider pelted down the Carinthian ski slopes on Saturday, determined as ever to portray the embodiment of Austria's dynamic future.

Youthfulness and zest are key to his domestic success.

The well-publicised anti-immigration, anti-European integration slant of the Freedom Party certainly held sway with some voters in October's general elections but many were attracted to a political leader whose sporty, designer image simply outshone that of his dusty and old-fashioned political rivals.

Youthful appeal

About 35% of young Austrians between the ages of 19 and 29 voted for the Freedom Party.

haider Mr Haider has courted the Austrian youth vote
They love Mr Haider's informal manner, his cheeky smile, his skiing, bungee jumping and waterfall climbing antics and his habit of going to the USA as if it were just over the Danube.

They crave his Porsche and believe him to be the man to lead Austria towards a go-getting future. Like the UK's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mr Haider is a success story in self-marketing.

In his school days Mr Haider was a star of the amateur dramatic society and throughout his political career he has prided himself on playing all things to all people, skillfully adjusting his rhetoric to suit each audience.

Meanwhile, international unease continues to be expressed as unofficial coalition talks proceed in Austria between the Freedom Party and the conservative People's Party.

People's Party leader, Wolfgang Schussel provides a stark contrast to Mr Haider, favouring bow-ties over sports' jackets.

schussel Wolfgang Schussel: Nicknamed 'the Little Prince'
Nicknamed 'the Little Prince' by local media in reference to his diminutive stature and distant, even condescending air, Mr Schussel now plans to be king - or in this case, chancellor.

After 13 years as the junior partner in a fractious coalition with the Social Democrats Mr Schussel finally smells power.

Mr Haider has promised to stay out of national politics, leaving the chancellorship open for Mr Schussel, if coalition talks are successful.

A puppet chancellor?

Yet how much power Mr Schussel would, actually, be left with is unclear.

He could conceivably become Mr Haider's puppet.

Mr Haider rules his party with an iron fist and his influence will continue even from a provincial seat in Carinthia.

Although both a populist and an opportunist, Mr Haider should not be underestimated.

The gap found by the Freedom party in Austria's political market belongs to the far-right and they are there to stay.

The People's Party, on the other hand, have lost all political credibility with the Austrian electorate, who see them as prostitutes to power.

Following a disappointing result in October's elections they promised first to go into opposition, then into a partnership with the Social Democrats only to enter into negotiations with the Freedom Party.

With that in mind, Mr Schussel's insinuations that his party will be sure to tame and civilise Mr Haider and the Freedom Party in coalition ring rather hollow.

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31 Jan 00 |  Europe
EU threat to Austria
31 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: What the action would mean
03 Oct 99 |  Europe
Profile: Joerg Haider

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