Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 5
7 February 2000

Jörg Haider A U S T R I A:
The contentious crowning of Austria's "Blue Prince"

Magali Perrault

Perhaps the only safe thing one can say about the elections of 3 October 1999 and the formation of a governmental coalition between the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) is that they undoubtedly provoked a major change in the Austrian political landscape. Austrian observers have described the recent events as a Wende (turning point) - characteristically, the word also often used in German to describe the fall of Communism.

The rise of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party marks the end of the consensus which lies at the root of the Second (post-WWII) Austrian Republic. Gernot Bauer, Markus Huber and Hulla Schmid (writing in the news magazine Profil) noted the following major changes.

For the first time in the history of the Second Republic, the chancellor will not belong to the largest parliamentary force (the Social Democrats [SPÖ] won 33.15 percent of the votes in October; the FPÖ and the ÖVP both gained 26.91 percent and the Greens 7.40 percent).

For the first time since 1945, the Alpine republic will be ruled by a "right of centre," or so-called black (ÖVP)-blue (FPÖ), coalition.

The departure of Viktor Klima as Chancellor also signals the end of the Social Democrats' 30-year-long domination and of the series of "red" chancellors, beginning with Bruno Kreisky in 1970.

Paradoxically, the ÖVP, whose chairman Wolfgang Schüssel will become Chancellor, has fallen to an all-time low of under 20 per cent in the opinion polls but will occupy, on top of the chancellery, the foreign ministry (traditionally the second most important portfolio in the Austrian government) as well as six of the nine regional (Länder) governments.[1]

The riddle of the Freedom Party

It is, however, not the participation of Schüssel's People's Party in government but rather that of Haider's Freedom Party which has triggered the angry reactions of the international community. The political programme of the party, led by Haider since 1986, has been difficult to define.

It is first necessary to remember that the Freedom Party already held governmental responsibilities between 1983 and 1986, when it entered into a coalition with the Social Democrats. But what was acceptable in 1983 has become unacceptable in 2000, because the Freedom Party is now inevitably linked to Haider and his extremely dubious statements about the Third Reich.

The Freedom Party, traditionally the "third force" in Austrian politics, was founded under the name Verband der Unabhängigen (Union of the Independents) in 1949 and became the FPÖ in 1956. Its ideology uncomfortably mixed liberal and nationalist elements, and for a long time, this put the party at a significant disadvantage compared to the ideologically and politically far more homogeneous SPÖ and ÖVP.[2]

Under Haider, the Freedom Party has, however, jettisoned liberalism and established itself as a nationally oriented, far-right extremist movement which appeals widely to a part of the Austrian electorate discontented by the grand coalition between Social Democrats and conservatives, the European Union or globalisation.

Austria and the European Union

The European Union is absolutely right to believe that Haider's racism is unacceptable at the end of the 20th century. Haider's ideas are contrary to the values of tolerance and democracy defended by the EU, and European leaders have a duty to express their disapproval and concern. Yet one cannot help thinking that there is something highly problematic about the reactions of Austria's 14 partner states.

There are, of course, many differences between the Waldheim affair [Kurt Waldheim was Austria's President between 1986 and 1992 and provoked international condemnation on account of his alleged involvement in Nazi war crimes, ed] and the current situation (above all the fact that Austria was not an EU member state in 1986), but it is worth pointing out that in both cases the reactions of the international community were perceived by many Austrians as unwarranted interventions into their country's internal affairs. In both cases, the international community unfortunately strengthened the very people it meant to condemn. Just as the Waldheim affair unleashed a nasty outburst of anti-Semitism and eventually helped Waldheim to be elected President, Haider has never been as popular as he is today. According to an opinion poll published last Tuesday, 58 per cent of Austrians consider the EU reactions to be "exaggerated" (only 32 per cent described them as "deserved").[3] Another poll showed that 85 per cent hold the proposed sanctions to be "wrong and inadequate".[4]

A brief look at the two most influential Austrian newspapers on Wednesday proved equally instructive:

Die Presse (close to the conservative People's Party) rightly accused the EU of double standards and pointedly wondered: "where was the collective outcry when post-fascists and right-wing populists held power in Italy? Where was the outcry against all the Communists in today's EU governments, which distanced themselves only partially or not at all from one of the bloodiest systems... in history...?".

Even Der Standard, with its Social-Democratic readership, took a similar line and implied that Austria is not Serbia (and should not be treated like Serbia) and suggested that it was no mere coincidence to find France and Belgium at the head of the anti-Haider campaign - two states with strong far right political parties themselves (the National Front and its splinter group, the National Movement, in France; Vlaams Blok in Belgium).

The reaction of the EU has shed light on the contradiction between the necessity to defend certain values (undeniably threatened by Haider's political style) and the necessity to let Austrian voters choose their leaders freely. Rather than being counterproductive and shouting fire before there is actually a fire, the EU ought to monitor closely the actions of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition and apply credible sanctions if (and as soon as) the new Austrian government shows any signs of bad behaviour. After all, Austrians are overwhelmingly favourable to the EU, and a suspension of EU membership (if, and only if there is evidence of a breach of human rights for instance) could render Haider a far less attractive electoral candidate.

The consequences for Central Europe

Austria's Central European neighbours have clearly a lot to worry about, since the Freedom Party has always been notoriously lukewarm (to put it euphemistically) about EU enlargement eastward. The former Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus (unsurprisingly, given his Thatcherite view of the EU) denounced the intervention of the EU; but he has remained an exception among Central European politicians.

More characteristic has been the cautious reaction of the Slovak Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamzik, who stated that he "[did] not wish to make statements that could worsen Slovak-Austrian relations." As a foreign ministry official declared, Slovakia "is concerned about the protection of the democratic values on which the EU has been founded" but also has to consider the economic consequences of the possible ostracism of the only Western country with which it shares a common border (and which is, furthermore, one of its most important trading partners).[5]

In practical terms, however, the new Chancellor (and former Foreign Minister) Wolfgang Schüssel is a long-time supporter of the enlargement and explicitly presented himself as the custodian of the continuity of Austrian policies. A leading Austrian political scientist Anton Pelinka expects "a ÖVP-FPÖ government to be rather careful in dealing with the enlargement - especially because there could be a deep split between ÖVP (traditionally pro-European) and FPÖ (anti-enlargement)" and suggested that "at the beginning of such a government, the ÖVP will dictate the Austrian enlargement policy, because this would be the only way to calm down the... international criticism".[6]

The coalition programme appears to confirm this. The reservations about the timing of the enlargement or the unsafe nuclear reactors are preceded and counterbalanced by a paragraph which describes enlargement as a process which will further peace and stability on the European continent and is "in the interest of Austria - which has already ...benefited from the economic advantages of the... opening of new market economies in its neighbourhood".[7] The question is, how long is the People's Party going to be able to contain the anti-enlargement instincts of its new coalition partner? Or, will Haider, as he has so many times before, suddenly change his mind and become a fan of enlargement?

However, the main danger for the future of Central Europe does not lie in the Freedom Party's capacity to prevent EU enlargement but in the political message that Haider's rise might send to Czech, Slovak or Slovene leaders. The return to nationalist rhetoric would threaten the stability of the whole region, and it is essential to prevent the banalisation of Haider's intolerant political discourse. Andreas Pribersky (professor at the University of Vienna) noted that the only applicant state which expressed its "understanding" for the Austrian political development was Hungary - a reflection of the national orientation of its government. [8]

Austria and NATO

Another important and often overlooked issue is the implication of a ÖVP-FPÖ coalition for Austria's security policy. With the Social Democrats (the main advocates of Austria's neutrality) now in opposition, the discussion about a possible adhesion to NATO is bound to start again. Whereas the Social-Democratic chancellors Franz Vranitzky and Viktor Klima believed that neutrality was still a valid concept for Austria, the conservatives, and especially Schüssel, have expressed their willingness to throw Austria's "immerwährende Neutralität" (permanent neutrality) into the dustbin of Cold War history.

In addition, Haider also appears in favour of NATO membership, for instance, noting last November that "Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are now members and in between is Austria, which still upholds its permanent neutrality. This does not make any sense".[9] The newly appointed FPÖ Defence Minister Herbert Scheibner stated that the question of NATO membership will re-emerge in four or five years at the earliest, since "Austria unfortunately missed the first round [of enlargement]".[10]

The issue has the potential to polarise Austrian society into two camps; while the government parties look increasingly ready to give up a neutrality that the Social Democrats and the Greens still cherish and consider to be a fundamental feature of post-war Austria. The ÖVP-FPÖ government programme makes clear that Austria wants to "actively and with solidarity participate in the development of a European security and defence policy" and adds that this could even mean taking the country into NATO (though not without a referendum).

There can, however, be no NATO membership without US support, and Austria will first have to break out of its isolation before having any realistic chance of successfully applying for NATO entry. The cancellation last week of a visit to Vienna by the NATO supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, is hence a rather negative omen for the new government.

Furthermore, and perhaps more forebodingly, Russia warned Austria against the possible abandonment of its neutrality. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was quoted as saying: "The Russian side hopes Austria will continue to contribute constructively to the development of good, neighbourly relations in Europe on the basis of its adherence to its policy of neutrality."[11] ]

An alternative?

The main problem today is that there does not seem to be an alternative to the Freedom Party's inclusion in the governmental coalition. President Thomas Klestil ultimately recognised that new elections would probably have only increased the FPÖ's share of votes: an opinion poll published on Thursday 3 February ominously showed the FPÖ at an all-time high of 33 per cent.[12]

A renewal of the grand coalition between the Social Democrats and the conservatives would probably also have allowed the Freedom Party to become the largest parliamentary party four years later. After all, if the Freedom Party does no better in government than the Social Democrats and the conservatives and if it becomes, in turn, an integral part of the Proporz system (the clientelist allocation of state jobs between Austrian political parties) loathed by so many Austrians, Jörg Haider's star is bound to wane before the next general elections.

Schüssel and the conservatives have gambled on the fact that they can somehow "swallow" the FPÖ. Yet, Haider is a man with a clear ambition - becoming Austria's chancellor - and, unfortunately, it seems hard to see at this stage who could prevent the politician nicknamed " the blue prince" from being crowned in Vienna, following the expiry of his mandate as governor of Carinthia in two years' time (or, at the latest, two years after that).

It has been pointed out that the National Front, the French far-right extremist movement, split up and virtually lost its electoral appeal while at the height of its popularity. Yet, the prospect of a similar split of the Freedom Party seems extremely remote. The liberal, moderate wing of the party already dissented to form the Liberal Forum in February 1993 under Heide Schmidt, and it lost parliamentary representation in October.

A clash of personalities within the FPÖ is equally hard to imagine, given Haider's firm hold on the party. The industrialist Thomas Prinzhorn, the official candidate of the party for the chancellery in October, was, for a while, branded as a possible rival of Haider; but Prinzhorn, who threatened last week to give president Klestil "a bloody head;" will not be minister (because the same Klestil rather unsurprisingly personally objected to his nomination) and will therefore find it virtually impossible to constitute himself as an alternative centre of power within the Freedom Party.

Magali Perrault, 4 February 2000


  1. Gernot Bauer, Markus Huber and Ulla Schmid, "Wechsel-Jahre", Profil, 31/01/2000
  2. See Viktor Reimann, "Das nationale und liberale Lager in Österreich", in Erich Zöllner (ed.), Österreichs Erste und Zweite Republik: Kontinuität und Wandel ihrer Strukturen und Probleme (Wien, 1985), pp.81-98
  3. ORF, 02/02/2000
  4. News, 03/02/2000
  5. RFE/RL newsline, 02/02/2000
  6. Email interview with the author, 02/02/2000
  7. The full text of the coalition agreement (in German) can be found on the website of the ÖVP
  8. Email interview with Dr Andreas Pribersky, professor at the university of Vienna, 04/02/2000
  9. ORF, 11/11/1999
  10. ORF, 31/01/2000
  11. The Guardian 05/02/2000
  12. Der Standard, 03/02/2000




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