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Saturday, 2 March, 2002, 13:12 GMT
The return of Haider?
Joerg Haider
Mr Haider - content to be a big fish in a small pond?
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By Bethany Bell in Klagenfurt
line

Two years after causing controversy in Europe when his far right Freedom party came to power, the Austrian politician Joerg Haider has once again been making international headlines - this time because of a visit to Iraq, and a meeting with President Saddam Hussein.

During the government crisis, nowhere was support stronger for Mr Haider than in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia, where he is governor.


Maybe the political constellation's against him. But he'd be good for Austria

Retired schoolteacher
But, when I visited the provincial capital Klagenfurt, I found things seem to be changing.

The last time I came to the Worthersee lake in wintertime - it was completely frozen. You could skate all the way across, from Klagenfurt to Velden some 17kilometres (11 miles) away.

That was two years ago, when Austria's EU partners imposed sanctions on Vienna in protest at Mr Haider's far right Freedom Party joining the government.

Back then as I slithered and slipped my way over the ice, stopping gratefully at the sausage stands set up at intervals on the frozen lake, it was hard to find anyone with a bad word for Mr Haider, their provincial governor.

Retreat

Carinthia has traditionally been Mr Haider's mountain stronghold. It was here in 1991 that he made the remarks that have dogged him throughout his political career - his praise for the employment policies of the Third Reich.

He was forced to resign as governor, but was triumphantly re-elected in 1999. And, in the main, despite or perhaps because of his attacks on immigrants and the EU, Carinthians have remained true to Mr Haider.

This year it has been a mild winter. There is hardly any snow on the banks of the Worthersee and if you want to cross to Velden, you would have to swim.

Anti-Haider demonstration
Anti-Haider demonstrations are common in Vienna
"Joerg Haider?" said one old man, sitting at a lakeside cafe. "He's my friend! I've got a photo of him in my wallet." But his companion, moodily drinking coffee with whipped cream, was more circumspect.

"Haider's all very well," he said. "But he doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut."

During the European outcry against him in 2000, Mr Haider did not join the national government, and retreated here to Carinthia.

But not for long.

"We got used to seeing him in high places," said the old man, waving his coffee spoon. "He'd be running in the New York marathon or going to Vienna to tell the government what to do. Last month he went to the Opera Ball."

Embarrassment

Indeed he had. I had seen him there with his guest, Seif, the son of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.

Then, a couple of weeks later, out of the blue, Mr Haider turned up in Baghdad. He was shown on Iraqi television, warmly shaking hands with President Saddam Hussein.

The trip was a source of great embarrassment to the Austrian Government. The United States was not amused. And even the most ardent Haider supporters are confused.

Haider jogs near his mountain home
In training for the New York marathon?
"I don't know why he went," said the old man, ordering some strudel. "They say it was to help people - but surely you can help closer to home."

It was an opinion I was to hear many times.

His supporters clearly need reassurance from Mr Haider. To celebrate his 1,000 days as governor, he sought to do just that. Gathered in a frescoed hall in Klagenfurt, several hundred party faithful were treated to a roundup of his achievements in Carinthia - including the best employment rate since 1945.

Iraqi connection

Watching Mr Haider in action, it is not hard to guess the secret of his appeal. A charismatic speaker, he knows how to present his tanned, chiselled features to best effect.

After his speech, a farmer wheezed up the aisle to present Mr Haider with a gift - a large basket covered with a blue gingham cloth. Mr Haider greeted him with great charm, slapping him on the back.

Turning to my neighbour, a retired schoolteacher, I asked: "Why did he go to Iraq?"

"For humanitarian reasons, he is very socially minded," he answered. "It's his personal touch - that's why we love him - just look at how many people are here tonight... "

Career of comebacks

"Do you think he still wants to become chancellor of Austria?" I asked.

The teacher smiled. "I've known him for 30 years - and I think he does. Maybe the political constellation's against him. But he'd be good for Austria."

Recent polls suggest most Austrians do not want to see Mr Haider at the helm in Vienna. But as the teacher reminded me, Mr Haider's made a career of comebacks.

In the crush for beer and wine after the speeches, I found myself being propelled through the crowd by a determined woman of my own height. "We small people need to stick together," she said.

Saddam Hussein
The US did not find Mr Haider's meeting with Saddam Hussein amusing
"Are you worried about Mr Haider?" I asked.

"Ah, he needs the limelight," she said. "He likes to provoke everybody. A storm in a teacup."

But the other political parties in Carinthia disagree. They have launched an inquiry into the Iraq trip. And on the streets of Klagenfurt, there is a strong feeling Mr Haider should stay at home.

"He's never around," said one shopper. "There's plenty to do here without going to Vienna or wherever."

Uphill battle

A girl on a market stand was jubilant. "Now even his supporters are realising what we felt all along," she said. "He's unreliable. Not good for Carinthia, or Austria."

But remembering many of Mr Haider's spirited performances, I drove away from Klagenfurt wondering if he will be content to remain a big fish in a small pond - even one as beautiful as the Worthersee.

As I arrived back in Vienna, I hit traffic on the Ring boulevard. Of course, the regular Thursday demonstration against Mr Haider and the government.

They have marched every week for the past two years. If he really wants to return to the national stage, Mr Haider has an uphill battle.

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