George Jahn, AP, newsday.com (NY), Mar. 8
VIENNA, Austria — Confounding pundits, Joerg Haider led his party to a stunning victory in his home province in a win that could be a steppingstone to a national comeback for the rightist known for anti-Jewish slurs and friendship with Saddam Hussein.
Haider’s Freedom Party won 42.4 percent of the vote, compared to just over 38 percent for the rival Socialists in Carinthia province. Just weeks before the legislative elections, Haider’s party had polled more than 10 percentage points behind the Socialists. Most predicted a Freedom Party loss after a string of defeats elsewhere over the past two years.
“Haider’s back,” declared Werner Beutelmeyer of the Market Institute polling organization, predicting that with his win, he would become “stronger than ever” on the national political scene.
In postelection interviews, Haider ruled out a quick return to national politics, declaring: “Of course I’m staying in Carinthia, and will keep my word to my supporters.”
While the voting was restricted to Carinthia, its significance extended beyond Austria’s southernmost province. Beyond assuring his reappointment as governor, the win increased chances that Haider would be able to revitalize his party. It has less than 10 percent support nationally compared to close to 30 percent just four years ago.
For much of the campaign Haider managed to keep his no-holds-barred style in check, apparently learning from past mistakes.
Many blame the party’s national demise on Haider, notorious for past remarks that sounded sympathetic to the Nazis and contemptuous of Jews, a visit with Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war, and a friendship with Moammar Gadhafi when Libya was still an international pariah.
More recently, he has obliquely compared President Bush to Saddam and Adolf Hitler.
Sharp attacks on traditional political parties, along with bursts of xenophobia and immigrant-bashing by Haider and his associates powered his party into the Austrian government in 2000.
But setbacks followed .
Haider stepped down as party leader in 2000 to ease the diplomatic pressure on Austria, but the European Union still slapped temporary sanctions on the country to protest his party’s government role.
Trying to run things from the sidelines, he provoked early elections in 2002 and alienated huge numbers of supporters who switched to other parties. The Freedom Party then suffered stinging defeats in provincial elections.
But on Sunday, the Freedom Party did marginally better than the last time Carinthians voted five years ago.
The biggest loser in Carinthia was the People’s Party — senior coalition partners of the Freedom Party in the federal government. It lost nearly half its strength.
Haider defended his political record and controversial statements in comments to the AP before the vote.
“I regret nothing and see no reason to change my political agenda,” he said. “For speaking out plainly you are attacked by your political opponents. Then two or three years later, they suddenly agree with you.”
Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press