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Obituary: Joerg Haider

Joerg Haider in Vienna, file pic from September 2008
Haider compared himself to former British PM Tony Blair
To his supporters Joerg Haider was a patriot who dared to speak uncomfortable truths.

His critics saw him as an ambitious, racist opportunist who used anti-immigrant and pro-Nazi rhetoric to stir up populist sentiment.

What is doubtless is that Haider - whose death in a car crash at the age of 58 leaves a widow and two daughters - had charisma.

Commentators said he worked a room like former US President Bill Clinton, embracing supporters and using the familiar "du" form of address.

Joerg Haider was born in the Upper Austrian town of Bad Goisern in 1950 and his parents were very early members of the Nazi party, who moved to Germany where they became party officials.

After the war, they were punished for their affiliations and forced to take up menial work.

Critics say Haider's views were shaped by this background, although he said his family seldom discussed the past.

Divisive figure

After school, where he was regularly top of the class, Haider studied law in Vienna and joined the Freedom Party in 1976.

He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the party's leader 10 years later.

Around the same time he became party leader, Haider inherited a controversial $16m estate in the southern province of Carinthia where he became governor in 1989.

JOERG HAIDER: KEY DATES
1950: Born in Upper Austria
1976: Joins Freedom Party
1986: Elected party's leader
1989: Elected governor of Carinthia
2000: Resigns as party leader
2005: Founds Alliance for Austria's Future

Barental, or Bear Valley, was bought during World War II by his great uncle from an Italian Jew who fled in 1940.

Critics say the sale was illegitimately forced upon the Jewish owner by the Nazis, but Haider consistently denied this.

He amassed a formidable power base in Carinthia, but his first stint as governor in 1989 ended abruptly when he praised the employment policies of Nazi Germany and was forced to resign.

He was re-elected, however, in 1999 and 2003.

When he became leader of the Freedom Party, it was winning barely 5% at the polls.

He had increased that support six-fold by 2000, when he resigned his leadership after the party entered into a coalition government with the conservative People's Party.

Despite his resignation as chairman, Haider remained a key figure within the party apparatus.

He showed he still had considerable personal appeal with voters when he was re-elected as governor of the southern province of Carinthia in 2004, although national surveys at the time suggested many Austrians mistrust him.

In 2005, he launched a new party - the Alliance for Austria's Future - after a split in the Freedom Party threatened the ruling coalition.

He was subsequently expelled from the Freedom Party.

The new party's increasing popularity won it 11% of the vote in September's general elections.

Carinthia powerbase

Haider gained notoriety for his pro-Nazi comments. He described World War II concentration camps as "punishment camps" and said the Nazi SS was "a part of the German army which should be honoured".

Joerg Haider (R) casts his ballot next to his wife Claudia during September Austria's general election on 28 September 2008
With his death at 58, Haider leaves a widow and two daughters

He also compared the deportation of Jews by the Nazis to the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war.

He later apologised for the comments although suspicions remained that his real views did not change.

Haider always denied being an extremist and even compared himself politically to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

During the 1999 Austrian election campaign, he whipped up feeling against immigrants and suggested that without them the government's austerity budget would not be necessary.

He tried to stop Austria joining the European Union in 1995 and attempted to force a referendum on whether to join the single currency.

On both issues he failed, but his views on the EU remained trenchant.

He opposed plans to let in new countries and called it a ''declaration of war against all working and upstanding people".

The EU reciprocated Haider's sentiments, imposing sanctions against Austria in 2000 in protest against his party's role in government.


SEE ALSO
Haider's enduring appeal
08 Mar 04 |  Europe
Blair is 'right wing' - Haider
28 Jun 02 |  Politics
Country profile: Austria
02 Oct 08 |  Country profiles


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