Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000
Essay of the Month

A U S T R I A:
On the Inside Looking Out: Austria's New ÖVP-FPV Government, Jörg Haider, and Europe

Lonnie Johnson

The events surrounding the establishment of the Austrian People's Party-Freedom Party of Austria (ÖVP-FPÖ) coalition government sworn into office on Friday, February 4, 2000 have been dramatic and disturbing. Israel has recalled its ambassador from Austria, and Israeli President Ezer Weizman observed with alarm that "the situation in Austria now is exactly the same as it was in Germany 70 years ago." Earlier in the week, the Austrian Green EU parliamentarian Johannes Voggenhuber used the term "neofascist" for the FPÖ at a press conference and referred to Haider as a "fascist" without the qualification of "neo-". The State Department called U.S. Ambassador Kathryn Hall back to Washington, D.C. for "consultations." On Monday, January 31, the fourteen other member states of the European Union expressed their disapproval of the negotiations of the ÖVP with the FPÖ, warned in a communiqué that that they "will not promote or accept any bilateral official contacts at the political level with an Austrian government integrating the FPO (Freedom Party)," and threatened sanctions against Austria, including no bilateral visits on the ministerial level and "no business as usual in bilateral relations." These bilateral sanctions have gone into effect (although Austria's participation in all multilateral EU bodies, which are ultimately more important, is intact.) At a Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) commemoration of the February 1934 uprising, Michael Häupel, the mayor of Vienna, called the new government "exploitive" (eine Ausbeuterregierung), a lapse into Austro-Marxist terminology that is truly spectacular.

There has been considerable protest on the street: at the party headquarters of the ÖVP and FPÖ and on Ballhausplatz in front of the Chancellery of the Austrian Federal President in Vienna, in particular. Although the great majority of the protesters have conducted themselves peacefully, a few members of the milieu that refers to itself as "autonomous anarchist" and other fans of recreational violence have managed to add a violent accent to demonstrations by challenging the police lines, throwing projectiles (ranging from eggs to fist-sized plaster stones), and engaging in collateral vandalism. The Viennese police have shown great restraint, although over fifty of them have been injured. When members of the ÖVP-FPÖ government were sworn into office at the Presidential Chancellery on February 4, the protest on Ballhausplatz between the Federal Chancellor's Office and the Presidential Chancellery was so turbulent that the newly sworn-in government, instead of taking its traditional walk back to the Federal Chancellor's office with the ritual waving and smiling and cameras, opted to use a subterranean passage connecting the two facilities to get to the Federal Chancellor's Office.

The 90 second news clips that television stations all over the world broadcast have been formulaic for the most part: Take 1: Historical footage of Hitler arriving in Vienna on March 15, 1938, adulated by the crowds lining the street of his motorcade. Take 2: Kurt Waldheim, former General of the United Nations, elected President of Austria in 1986. Take 3: Kurt Waldheim in uniform as a young officer in the German Wehrmacht during World War II (wearing a broad-billed officer's cap, riding breeches, and knee-high boots). Take 4: Jörg Haider, leader of the Freedom Party, in a victorious pose at a celebration of the recent FPÖ electoral victory, adulated by his admirers. Take 5: Police cordons and protesters on the streets of Vienna. There is really no need to comment on the associative power of these images.

The amount of attention Austria has received in international print media has been tremendous: lead stories in papers all over the world with abundant editorial commentary and scathing caricatures of Austria (with the liberal symbolic use of swastikas) . Haider shared the cover of the February 14, 2000 European edition of Time magazine with John McCain (with the title "Should Europe Fear this Man?"), and was alone on the European cover of Newsweek ("Thunder on the Right"). Although the German CDU is in the midst of the largest scandal in its history, a crisis related to illegal donations accepted by former Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the prestigious German weekly Die Zeit devoted its entire front page of its February 10 edition to the position of Austria in Europe, with pro and contra articles on the issue of sanctions.

All of this is related to the fact that Austria, in complete correspondence with the rules of parliamentary democracy, established a coalition government with a clear parliamentary majority of 104 of 183 seats.

There is nothing radical or spectacular about the coalition program that the ÖVP-FPÖ government has produced. It is divided into 15 points and fits into the political mainstream of conservative European politics. It contains a clear commitment to the EU, addresses a number of important issues related to social security and institutional reform, outlines policies on immigration and integration, and describes the objectives of the government in all primary fields of political endeavor: ministry-by-ministry.

The old SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government failed to agree on a budget for the year 2000, and one of the most pressing issues at hand is to get one through Parliament because the government cannot continue to operate on the basis of provisional arrangements. Austria has a considerable deficit problem (which no one in office talked about before the elections of October 3 last year), and it must meet certain budgetary (or deficit management) criteria related to the "convergence criteria" stipulated by the introduction of the Euro. The government is planning more privatization and is going to have to raise some taxes. Restrictive immigration and asylum policies are nothing new in the European Union. There is an emphasis on "family policy."

It is important to distinguish between the FPÖ program as articulated in the coalition agreement and the person and persona of Jörg Haider, who is not in the government cabinet and has reaffirmed his promise to serve as the governor of Carinthia for the entire legislative period for which he was elected. However, the FPÖ is not a "normal" political party in which the membership ultimately controls the leadership. On the contrary, the rise of the FPÖ under Haider is to a great extent his personal political achievement, and he exercises a tremendous amount of authority in the FPÖ. The party structure and his leadership style have motivated some of his critics to use the term Führerpartei. There is no need to comment on the terminological associations this evokes. One Austrian politician came to power democratically in Germany in 1933 and another has come into power democratically in Austria in the year 2000. Is it legitimate to spin out the parallels?

One of the big open questions is to what extent Haider is going to let the FPÖ ministers in Vienna do their jobs or whether he will try and call all of the shots from Klagenfurt. On Sunday, February 6, he appeared on Austrian television in Die Pressestunde, the Austrian version of Meet the Press, and he maintained that he did not have the intention of intervening in the operations of the federal government because he in not a member thereof.

Although there is a plethora of worst case scenarios for the ÖVP- FPÖ coalition, there are two best case scenarios related to the FPÖ participation in the government: (1) Being in the opposition, criticizing, and making wild promises is easy; assuming political responsibility and realizing political promises is much more difficult. Neither Haider nor the FPÖ will be able to do what they always said they could do so easily. Assuming political power and working with hard numbers will turn Haider into a "normal" politician and the FPÖ into a "normal" political party that cannot deliver to the extent it promised (with a subsequently somewhat disillusioned clientele). (2) The empowerment of his own party members in public office will give them more authority in the party itself and help turn the FPÖ into a more democratic forum of opinion-building that has a stake in being in office. The party thus will more effectively control its own leader and perhaps produce other political FPÖ figures with a media presence who could serve as a balance or potential "alternative" to Haider.

It is worth noting that President Klestil in an unusual use of presidential prerogative refused to appoint two ministers that the FPÖ initially had on their list of candidates for ministerial posts: Thomas Prinzhorn, an industrialist designated to serve as minister of finance, due to his "verbal excesses" (verbale Entgleisungen) and Hilmar Kabas, the head of the FPÖ in Vienna designated as minister of defense who was responsible for posters during the October electoral campaign that explicitly appealed to xenophobic sentiment by warning against Überfremdung (the excessive influence of foreigners). These posters incidentally were a "local initiative" and only appeared in Vienna.

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The "Haider phenomenon," which has attracted so much media attention in recent weeks, needs to be seen in a broader context, and Anton Pelinka's book Austria: Out of the Shadow of the Past does a excellent job of outlining the larger structural and political issues currently at stake in Austria. Pelinka, a professor of political science from the University of Innsbruck, not only brings his considerable expertise to bear on the peculiarities of the Austrian political system. He places its development in a larger, comparative, European context. This book should be required reading for any one interested in contemporary Austrian politics.

The ÖVP-FPÖ coalition agreement is not the problem. The previous conduct and reputation of Jörg Haider is. The Austrian journalist Hans-Henning Scharsach described the political genealogy of Haider in a biography that appeared in 1992 (Haiders Kampf )and although it is eight years old, it is still well worth reading. Haider has been a "revisionist" with regard to Nazi-German history, and he is a law-and-order populist-nationalist, who regularly and effectively appeals to base sentiments such as fear and insecurity as well as feelings of injustice and inferiority (the proverbial kleiner Mann). Anton Pelinka describes the ideology of the FPÖ in the following manner. It "combines pan-German traditions with Austrian patriotism, mixes opposition rhetoric with an appeal to xenophobic resentments, and plays with Nazi revisionism and Holocaust denial. The FPÖ is populist and has a "New Right" agenda, and both aspects are legitimate in liberal democracies. But at the sametime, parallels to Nazism have not ceased to exist." (p.201)

Haider also is (in purely descriptive terms) a rhetorically brilliant politician and exceptionally effective with the media. Austrian journalists, who have been sparring with Haider in the media ring for the past ten years, have taken considerably more punches than they have landed. Haider is a counter-puncher, and he has handled the moderators of the German and other TV stations that have been interviewing Haider regularly and their tough questions with great ease.

Haider loves the political show and is a master of political effect. The only things sharper than his intelligence and his wit are his temper and his tongue. In an interview on January 29 (held during the ÖVP-FPÖ negotiations), he insulted Jacques Chirac, the French president (as "one of those politicians in Europe, who has done everything wrong that can be done wrong in the last years"), and the entire Belgian government ("corrupt"). In an interview in the February 3 edition of Die Zeit, he said that the did not know what all of the "excitement was about in the European chicken coop [of the EU] because the fox is not inside yet."

Haider's provocative tone and style - trademarks and useful instruments of his oppositional polemics - are a potential diplomatic deficit for the Republic of Austria of gigantic dimensions. President Klestil, a seasoned diplomat himself and man of great public restraint, has admonished Dr. Haider that statements that do not correspond to "diplomatic conventions" (diplomatische Gepflogenheiten) are simply unacceptable. Benito Ferraro-Waldner, the new foreign minister of Austria, has pointed out to the media that she, the federal chancellor, and the president of Austria are responsible for speaking for the Austrian government and the Republic of Austria, not Jörg Haider. Most journalists themselves have a love/hate relationship to Haider. They personally disdain his politics, but they professionally love his controversial or provocative statements. He always comes up with something that is good for a headline or "quotable." Haider is what they call in the sensationalism business a "good story."

Haider on Chirac:
"one of those politicians who has done everything wrong that can be done wrong..."

Jörg Haider is a master of insinuation, implication, and ambiguity. Pelinka provides an overview of Haider's most infamous revisionist statements related to "playing down the special character of the Nazi rule and to relativize the Holocaust" (pp. 198-199), the great majority of which date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s and are being re-cited today. Since then, Haider has attempted to qualify his statements as "misinterpreted," apologized, and condemned the Third Reich and the Holocaust a number of times. His critics accuse him of half-heartedness and insincerity, but when he is confronted with his previous statements, Haider refers to the fact that he previously has gone on record to the contrary.

Recently many journalists have re-confronted Haider with his statements (for example, in his controversial interview with Die Zeit on February 3 cited above): his description of National Socialist employment policies as "ordentlich," a term that could perhaps best be translated into English not as "orderly" but as "sound"; his reference to concentration camps as "penal camps" (Straflager); or his designation of members of the Waffen SS as "decent" (anständig). In response, Haider said: "That was a mistake, and I publicly apologized for it."

It is important to recognize, however, that Haider's morally reprehensible and historically untenable revisionist statements, which are the primary source of his current bad reputation, have ceased to be part of his politically operative vocabulary. They may have served a purpose at one time, but they do not any longer. However, he still suffers from a lack of credibility. Can Haider be trusted? Is he credible? Can or should a politician, who has made such statements, be given a chance, or has he disqualified himself from participating in the political process?

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Pelinka places the rise of the FPÖ under Haider in the larger context of the erosion of traditional ideologies and camps (Lager) in Austria and traditional Austrian institutions, such as "social partnership." In discussing the "end of subsocieties," he describes the demise of (political) Catholicism and socialism (pp. 97-128), and in "a farewell to corporatism" (pp. 139-156), he discusses how the dovetailing of political parties and organized economic interests (chambers of industry, commerce, labor, agriculture) is beginning to fade. The period of what Pelinka calls consociational democracy - characterized by the ability of political elites to arrive at a high degree of consensus based on power-sharing agreements - is coming to an end. The fragmentation of the Austrian political spectrum is the inevitable result of the modernization of Austria: something Pelinka calls the "Westernization of a Central European democracy." (p. 205)

The "old" Austrian political spectrum - with Austria being understood as the territories that became the Republic of Austria in 1918 - was based on the existence of three "camps" (Lager) dating back to the late 19th century: Christian social (or Christian democratic), social democratic, and liberal-national. One can trace the continuity of these three camps through the interwar period and up to the immediate post-WW II emergence of the ÖVP, SPÖ, and FPÖ. Until the mid-1980s, the Austrian political system was characterized by the fact that the two largest camps (SPÖ and ÖVP) divided over 90% of the votes between themselves. With 6% in the 1986 elections, the "third camp" of the FPÖ was of negligible size and consisted of a "liberal" and a "national" wing.

In 1986, two events marked the beginning of the end of the "old" Austrian political spectrum: the advent of the Greens as a parliamentary faction and the rise of Jörg Haider to the party chairmanship of the FPÖ. The Greens have drawn on the left wing and intellectual constituencies of both the SPÖ and the ÖVP, and this party has a predominantly urban, bourgeois, well educated following. Haider's rise to power in the FPÖ generally is interpreted as a victory of the "national" wing of the party over its "liberal" wing, represented at that time by presiding party chairman Norbert Steger. The shift of the party under Haider to a more aggressive populist-nationalist agenda laid the foundations for an internal party split between what could best be called "liberal liberals" and "national liberals" in the FPÖ. In 1993, a small group of FPÖ parliamentarians, led by the FPÖ candidate for president in the 1992 elections, Heide Schmidt, established a "liberal club" in the Austrian parliament. The "Liberal Forum" (LiF) then campaigned successfully in the parliamentary elections of 1994 and 1995, but did not manage to attract enough votes to be represented in parliament after the elections of October 1999.

The deterioration of Austria's three political camps produced five political parties in Austria. The rise of the smaller parties (Greens, FPÖ, and LiF) has been at the expense of the the SPÖ and ÖVP and indicates to what extent the "old parties" have not managed to maintain their traditional core constituencies. The "big two" used to jointly garner over 90% of the votes cast in Austria, but taken together the SPÖ and the ÖVP have successively have lost 30% of their voters to other parties in the past two decades.

Pelinka also points out to what extent Haider has shifted ideologically away from a combination of traditional Pan-Germanism and apologetic revisionism to patriotic populism. (Aging ex-Nazis, as important as they once may have been in the FPÖ, have become a demographically negligible variable in Austria.) Haider has been a ruthless critic of the established Austrian institutions of governance, based on elite decision- making, neocorporatism, and political patronage, and argues for an anti-establishment empowerment of the citizenry.

In 1993, Haider initiated an FPÖ campaign based on the slogan "Austria First" which openly appealed to xenophobic sentiment. This campaign galvanized anti-Haider sentiment in Austria and led to the establishment of an umbrella organization called SOS-Mitmensch. This organization organized a gigantic anti-xenophobic protest on Heldenplatz in 1993 with an estimated 200,000 participants, rehabilitating it to a certain extent as a "place of memory" exclusively associated with Hitler's March 15, 1938 Anschluss speech. Recently, SOS-Mitmensch organized 50,000 people in a similar rally in Vienna in December, and within two days during the ÖVP-FPÖ negotiations it brought 15,000-20,000 protesters to the central offices of the ÖVP for a march from there to the central government offices on Ballhausplatz. (Invitations to most recent demonstration were not in print but went out over the web in the form of e-mail chain letters.)

Haider fits well into the Austrian tradition of "verbal radicalism." In his standard work on Austrian Social Democracy (Zwischen Reformismus und Bolschewismus), Norbert Leser discusses interwar Austrian social democracy in terms of the disparity between the "radicalism of the word" and the "radicalism of the deed." In other words, Austro-marxists were good at talking revolution and bad at doing it. The propensity for rhetorical exaggeration, combined with inaction, also is part of the consensual political culture of the Austrian Second Republic: ideological confrontation in public and political collaboration among elites in private. Haider is an exception insofar as his tactics have been based on confrontation and polarization. Be that as it may, it is worth noting that the Austrian Second Republic actually has a comparatively good record of political non-violence (or an absence of radical deeds). With reference to racially or politically motivated violence against foreigners, a comparison of the incidents and statistics from Austria with those of Germany, for example, result in a favorable balance for Austria.

The only victims of racially inspired political violence in Austria to date have been four Roma, who were killed by a booby-trap bomb in Burgenland five years ago. The perpetrator, allegedly a lone wolf who maintained to be representing an underground organization called the "Bauvarian Liberation Army," also was responsible for a series of letter bombs sent to various individuals and organizations sympathetic to foreigners, one of which deformed the hand of the then presiding mayor of Vienna, Helmut Zilk. The bomber since has been apprehended, put on trial, and is now in prison. However, unlike Germany, there have not been fire-bombings of asylums or apartment buildings inhabited by foreigners or skin-head excesses on the streets in Austria. This is impressive if one looks at the sheer number of foreigners in Austria. According to 1998 census figures, 737,000 of the inhabitants of Austria's total population of 8,078,000 were "legal aliens," and there are strong regional patterns of variation in terms of their concentration. For example, over 17% of the inhabitants of Vienna (283,000 of its total population of 1,606,000) are foreigners, and in traditional working class districts, they account for between 20 and 33% of the inhabitants.

It is also worth mentioning in this context that Austria historically has been a land of asylum since 1945, and that it recently has done an admirable job of accepting over 90,000 Bosnian refugees between 1992 and 1995 (more than 1% of the country's total population) and has assimilated and estimated 65,000 to 70,000 of them. In historical and demographic terms, Austria also is a land of immigration, although many Austrians do not perceive it as such. Asylum and immigration policies have become increasingly restrictive since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 (under social democratic ministers of the interior by the way). There are a lot of foreigners in Austria, and the related policy issues (Ausländerpolitik) such as asylum, legal and illegal immigration, "economic refugees," integration, and quotas are big issues. No one in Austria doubts the economic necessity of low-skilled and cheap foreign labor upon which entire industrial and service branches of the Austrian economy rely. However, the FPÖ has introduced a more aggressive tone in this realm of policy by appealing to the anxieties of those Austrians, who are uncomfortable with the fact that the complexions of communities in which they live have been changed by foreigners or, if they are members of the working class, may view foreign workers as immediate competitors on the labor market.

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Pelinka also points out how the clientele of the FPÖ has shifted under Haider's leadership. According to Pelinka, the initial rise of the FPÖ was based less on the variable of age than on its ability to attract working class and male voters, the "proletarization and masculinization" of the FPÖ (p. 197), the former at the expense of Austrian social democracy, in particular. More recently the FPÖ has made considerable gains among younger voters and women. Here one could speak of a "rejuvenation" and "feminization" of the FPÖ, even if the latter is based on a traditional role model for women (as mothers) and related issues, such as maternity leave and the level of direct government child support payments for families (Familienpolitik).

The rise of the FPÖ has been at the expense of the ÖVP and in particular the SPÖ, as the dramatic shift in the electoral behavior of the Austrian working class in the past twenty years has illustrated. In the elections of 1979, the SPÖ attracted 63% of the working class vote (ÖVP 29%, FPÖ 4%, others 4%); in the elections of 1999, the FPÖ emerged as the largest "working class party": SPÖ 35%, ÖVP 12%, FPÖ 47%, others 6%. At the same time, the FPÖ has succeeded in attracting a considerable number of younger voters. In the past elections, one-third of the FPÖ voters were under 35.

Under these circumstances one must ask what has motivated a considerable portion of the Austrian working class - politically socialized, nominally at least, in the SPÖ tradition of antifascism - to vote for a "right wing" party and why an equally considerable number of younger Austrians have been willing to vote for a party accused of being a haven for "old Nazis" and criticized for its historical revisionism. In other words, does FPÖ historical revisionism, which has been one of the greatest sources of domestic and international concern and criticism and one of the reasons the party has been designated as "far right," attract the younger and the working class vote in Austria or are their other reasons for the success of the FPÖ under Haider?

Historical revisionism, although the most controversial and high profile issue, does not seem to be a plausible explanation for the success of the FPÖ in comparison to the party's appeals to "Austrian nationalism" (which for its critics includes xenophobia) and its scathing criticism of traditional Austrian institutions of governance: power-sharing coalitions, duopoly, neo-corporatism, social partnership, political privilege and patronage, etc. Many of Haider's critics accuse him of being a revisionist (which can be rhetorically extrapolated out to "neo-fascist" or "neo-Nazi"), a racist, and a populist: usually in that order. The reasons for his domestic political success in Austria, however, are inverse order.

Haider's liberal critique of traditional forms of Austrian post-WW II governance (or "populism") appealed to many Austrians who felt that it is more than high time for a change: less regulation, less intervention, more transparency, more equal opportunity. The two major parties have indulged in extensive systems of proportional power-sharing and political patronage (called Proporz and Parteibuchwirtschaft or "the economics of party membership"), and those Austrians who have not been or are not benefactors of these arrangements have expressed their discontent by voting for the FPÖ as a means of protest.

At the same time, the level of subjective insecurity in Austria has increased tremendously in the past decade. The fall of the Iron Curtain and Austria's EU membership completely changed the position of Austria in Europe and instigated a wave of modernization that has threatened lower income groups with lower levels of education and skills, in particular: the potential "losers" in the process of modernization who, at the same time, are most susceptible to populistic appeals such as "Austria first" with its implicit or explicit xenophobia (or the "racism" mentioned above). Security is the most highly esteemed social value in Austria, and Haider repeatedly appeals to it: to secure Austrian jobs and business sites, to secure families, to secure the Austrian standard of living, to secure pensions, to secure public safety, to secure Austria's frontiers, etc. FPÖ policy on asylum, immigration, naturalization, and EU enlargement also are part of this "security policy."

Indeed, before and after the elections of October 1999, many Austrian observers were baffled by the fact that the numbers for the Austrian economy were so good but the general atmosphere in the country was so bad. (Die Zahlen sind gut aber die Stimmung ist schlecht.) Are there material reasons for discontent in one of the richest countries in the European Union (with one of its lowest rates of unemployment) that is enjoying modest economic growth and whose rate of inflation just has reached a thirty year low? I would venture the conjecture that there may well be a relationship between prosperity, insecurity, and the rise of the FPÖ in the Austrian case: people having the feeling that they have something to lose and voting for a party that they feel will best protect their interests. We are accustomed to explaining the rise of "old" forms of radicalism, such as Nazism and Communism, in terms of the relationship between economic hardship and a propensity for political extremism. The rise of the "New Right" in Europe may well combine relatively high levels of prosperity with appeals to anti-modernization.

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Over the past ten years, one also notes a shift in Haider's political rhetoric that corresponds to the shift in the FPÖ's political clientele. As a populist (or as many of his critics would maintain, as an opportunist), Haider has sought out a new constituency and correspondingly adopted a new political terminology that is less "revisionist" and more "populist." Haider has shifted his positions on so many major issues so many times in the past decade that it is difficult for observers to ascertain what his political agenda really is, but populists are motivated by popularity more than ideological rigor. Social scientists assume that there is a right-wing fringe political potential in all industrialized democracies - let us postulate around 10% - and operate on the assumption that extreme agendas of the far right (or the far left, for that matter) have limited potential due to the democratic common sense of the bell curve of public opinion. In a Gallup survey published by the Austrian magazine News (Nr. 7, February 17, 2000, p. 23), a representative cross section of Austrians were asked a hypothetical question: for whom would they vote, if the Austrian Federal Chancellor were to be elected directly? In comparison with the other party leaders (Wolfgang Schüssel, ÖVP; Alexander van der Bellen, Greens; and Viktor Klima, SPÖ), Jörg Haider finished fourth and last with 11%.

The fact that the Freedom Party has increased its constituency from 5 to 27% between 1986 and 1999 under Haider can be interpreted in terms of two trends: Has the Freedom Party moved from the right toward the center of the political spectrum in order to attract a larger pool of voters or has a larger pool of voters in Austria has moved from the center (or even left-of-center) to the right?

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Given the diversity of its constituency and the ideological potpourri of its program, the FPÖ is not a representative of the "Old Right" but of the "New Right," which ultimately raises the question of the FPÖ's relationship to the "Old Right," revisionism, and which terminology is most appropriate for describing the "New Right." In this context, one must also distinguish between the political weight of Haider's previous revisionism, on the one hand, and the moral, historical, and political implications thereof, on the other.

It would be erroneous to assume that the younger and working class elements of the FPÖ constituency are politically motivated by revisionism to any great extent, and I have suggested above that discontent and insecurity are more plausible motivesfor their electoral behavior. However, Haider's previous revisionist statements have attracted the most attention and criticism. Some critics of Haider are representatives of what perhaps could be called the "Old Left," and, as such, are proponents of "classic" or "historical anti-fascism," who see revisionism as a programmatic and methodological link between the fascism of the past and the anticipated danger of a reversion to fascism or neo-fascism in the future.

The relationship between anti-fascist vigilance and the generous rhetorical use of anti-fascist terminology is the issue at stake here. The propensity of some critics to use the terms "fascist," "neo-fascist," or "quasifascist" (faschistoid) in the debate or to anticipate putsches or pogroms does not necessarily promote the type of differentiated analysis that is necessary for dealing with the phenomena of the "New Right," which is ideologically much more diffuse and amorphous than the "Old Right." In other words, when the "New Right" intentionally or inadvertently flirts with revisionism - which is has an especially high political and historical load in Austria and Germany but a considerably lower political draw among younger voters who are either not motivated by historical issues or disinterested in history - the "Old Left" indulges in a form of rhetorical overkill that treats the "New Right" agenda in a historically monocausal and relatively undifferentiated manner: as an extension of the "Old Right" agenda. Ascertaining historical continuities and affinities between the "Old" and the "New Right" where they exist is important. However, an ideological reduction of the "New Right" agenda to "Old Right" precedents is problematic. Insinuating such continuities where there may be none and then postulating political intent upon that basis is irresponsible. There is a considerable amount of novelty on the "New Right," including its commitment to representative democracy.

Furthermore, the strategy of the "New Right" is a mirror reverse version of the strategy of the "New Left" in many respects: the attempt to maintain a commitment to traditional partisan values and objectives for "old supporters" and dwindling constituencies and to move towards the center to recruit new voters from new constituencies at the same time.

The rise of populist movements on the right is not a peculiarly Austrian development but a pan-European phenomenon related to the end of the Cold War, to the fragmentation of the European political spectrum, and in all probability to the processes of European integration itself. Certainly one must take the national historical backgrounds of individual populist movements into account to explain the genealogy of the discontent upon which they feed. We should attempt to come up with meaningful criteria that allow us to differentiate among the various movements in terms of the historical experiences that individuate them, one the one hand, and to generalize about the attributes and degrees of radicalism that allow us to compare them, on the other. Conservative, right wing, far-right, extreme right, populist, neo-populist, and neo-fascist all are terminologically vague, and lumping all "New Right" movements into one historical or one political category merely obscures the complexity of these phenomena.

Politicians, and not historians, ultimately bear responsibility for making tactical decisions regarding how to deal with the rise of the "New Right." Many observers of the Austrian scene retrospectively feel that the tactics of exclusion the major parties employed to keep the FPÖ out of power ultimately worked to the advantage of the FPÖ to get into power. A further assumption of this argument is that if exclusion enhanced its popularity, "inclusion" may diminish it.

Under these circumstances, one may draw parallels between how German conservatives "included" Hitler in 1933 and Austrian conservatives have "included" the Haider FPÖ in 2000 to argue that this strategy backfired once in a big way and consequently is the wrong one to chose now. (This is a good example of a "Old Left" interpretation of a "New Right" phenomenon.) However, comparing the constitutional framework and political culture of Weimar Republic with those of the Austrian Second Republic, the program of the NSDAP with that of the FPÖ, or the political dynamics of interwar Europe with those of the European Union at the dawn of a new millennium shows how weak some provocative historical parallels can be. They ultimately obscure many of the issues at stake.

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Judging by the patterns of western European politics, there has been an Austrian political Sonderweg for the past twenty years, and it is related in part to how Austrian political parties have attempted to manage the Freedom Party (and Jörg Haider). In other western European democracies, conservative governments came into power in the late 1970s and early 1980s (with the assistance of smaller "junior parties," such as the German liberal FDP as the feather on the parliamentary scale for the CDU/CSU), and labor and social democratic governments made their comebacks in the late 1990s (such as Tony Blair and the German SPD, with the Greens playing the key role of "junior partner" in coalition building).

Statistical normalcy could be defined as the political pendulum moving from left-of-center to right-of-center and back to left-of-center. This did not happen in Austria, and the establishment of a right-of-center government may be described as a "belat ed development" that reflects to what extent Austria has been out of synchronization with general European political trends. Furthermore, Austria has moved from a left-of-center government to right-of-center one at a time when the great majority of other EU governments are being ruled by left-of-center parties or coalitions. Part of the criticism of Austria from abroad may very well have partisan motives.

When the SPÖ lost its absolute majority in parliament in 1983, it entered a coalition with the pre-Haider or "liberal" FPÖ to stay in power. After Haider putsched his way into the party leadership in 1986 (a victory of the party's "national wing" over its "liberal wing"), neither the SPÖ nor the ÖVP were prepared to cooperate with the "new FPÖ," and they "renewed" their "great coalition" reminiscent of the years 1945-1966: an unhappy marriage that lasted 13 years characterized by lukewarm compromises that failed to address an entire series of issues related to structural reform that are now looming larger and larger in Austria.

The strategy of both parties for dealing with Haider was to marginalize him (Ausgrenzung), especially in light of his historical revisionism. The rise of the Green Party, increasing electoral success of the FPÖ, and the advent of the Liberal Forum on the political scene, cemented the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition as the only viable majority constellation in parliament: the Greens being to weak to provide the majority for a "red-green" coalition and the Liberals being too weak for a "black-liberal" coalition.

In the election of 1994, ÖVP chairman and Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek made it perfectly clear that he was in favor of a renewal of the OVP coalition with the SPÖ "without ifs or buts" (ohne wenn oder aber), and the ÖVP and Busek paid a dear political price for their commitment to the coalition. The ÖVP not only lost votes. Busek lost his position as head of the ÖVP before the extraordinary parliamentary elections of 1995 and was replaced by Wolfgang Schüssel.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Before the elections of October 1999, Wolfgang Schüssel said that the ÖVP would go into opposition if it did not finish second after all of the votes were tallied. The SPÖ received 33.15% of the vote and 65 seats (-4.91% and a loss of 6 seats in comparison to 1995); the ÖVP received 26.91% held its 52 seats (-1.38% and unchanged); the FPÖ also received 26.91% of the vote and 52 seats (+5.02 and an increase of 11 seats); and the Greens received 7.40% (+2.59 and plus 5 seats). The Liberal Forum received only 3.65% (-1.86%) and fell below the threshold necessary to be represented in parliament and hence lost all of its seats (previously 10). Although the ÖVP and the FPÖ finished ex aequo with 52 seats in parliament, the ÖVP technically finished third (a mere 415 votes behind the FPÖ) and therefore it initially decided to honor its pre-electoral promise to go into opposition. This excluded the possibility of a renewal of the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition (or tactically upped the ante for its renewal because the SPÖ would have to make greater concessions to get the ÖVP to cooperate.)

Due to the intercession of Austrian Federal President Thomas Klestil, who wanted a "government on the broadest possible basis" (i.e. a renewal of the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition), the SPÖ and ÖVP entered into negotiations on December 9,1999, but they failed just short of an agreement at the very last minute on January 21, because the ÖVP insisted upon having a "non-party expert" as minister of finance (instead of an SPÖ minister) and having the representative of the SPÖ negotation team from the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (an autonomous organization closely affiliated with the SPÖ) sign the coalition pact (which would be standard coalition-building operating procedure but which the unionist refused to do). The SPÖ and the trade unionists were not willing to compromise on these issues, arguing that they had reached their absolute limits, and the ÖVP insisted on these concessions. The coalition agreement collapsed, and the partisan accusations began. The SPÖ accused the ÖVP of negotiating in bad faith (and Wofgang Schüssel for his political ambition of wanting to become federal chancellor at all costs), and the ÖVP accused the SPÖ of assuming that they had institutionalized entitlements to certain ministries. Both the ÖVP and the FPÖ made it clear that they would not tolerate an SPÖ minority government, and this, in turn, opened up the avenue for an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition as the only means of establishing a government with a parliamentary majority: a conservative coalition that marked the end of the leading role of the SPÖ in government after thirty years.

This is when the member states of the European Union intervened in an unprecedented and unusual manner. While ÖVP-FPÖ negotiations were in process, Portugal, which currently holds the position of the Presidency of the EU, an office that rotates among member states every six months, issued a statement on January 31 that the 14 member states of the EU would reduce their bilateral contacts with Austria to an absolute minimum, i.e. effectively diplomatically quarantine Austria, should the FPÖ be represented in an Austrian government. This statement was made without formal diplomatic consultation with Austria or Austrian foreign minister and ÖVP party chairman Wolfgang Schüssel. (His critics have accused him of not being prepared to deal with the international reaction that FPÖ participation in a government would provoke or the damage that it would do to Austria's international reputation.) The threat of "the fourteen" was truly a controversial and premature measure. How can the members of the European Union uphold the principles of parliamentary democracy, on the on hand, and, at the same time, threaten sanctions against a member state that has not violated EU conventions but is in the process of establishing a coalition government based on the principle of parliamentary democracy, on the other?

[An important technical distinction must be made here between the fifteen member states of the European Union as they are represented in the EU Council of Ministers, which has a chair (or presidency) that rotates among EU member states every six months and is a forum for representatives of the member states to coordinate their national policies and resolve differences among themselves, and the European Commission in Brussels, a central instance of the EU as a multilateral organization that ensures that all member states observe their obligations related to the network of treaties upon which the Union is based and supervises EU policy implementation in the member states. The sanctions that were threatened and have been imposed against Austria were announced by the Portuguese Prime Minister because Portugal currently holds the Presidency of the aforementioned EU Council of Ministers. However, this was a coordinated action, and he acted on behalf of "the Heads of State and Government of XIV Member States of the European Union." In other words, the fourteen member states decided collectively but individually to introduce bilateral sanctions. As a quasi-executive body of the European Union, the European Commission has not threatened or introduced sanctions against Austria, and Austria's participation as an equal member in all multilateral EU bodies, which are a more important forum of European diplomacy because this is where "European policy" is made, is intact.]

The threat of collective sanctions was an unprecedented example of EU members intervening in the domestic affairs of a member state without any material cause. There was no Austrian government with a program that violated EU conventions when the threat of sanctions was made. Now there is an Austrian government that has not violated EU conventions, but the EU sanctions have become effective. Everyone has been surprised how quickly the 14 other member states of the EU have reacted, or, according to some of the more judicious commentary appearing in European papers, overreacted. (It would have been nice to have seen the EU demonstrate this type of speed and firmness of resolution in other "crisis situations," such as Kosovo or Bosnia.)

"It would have been nice to have seen the EU demonstrate this... firmness of resolution in other crisis situations"

Proponents of the sanctions have heralded them as a milestone in the development of the European Union as a "community of values": a step beyond economic and monetary integration to the political and moral integration of Europe. And, after all, EU integration is based on the limitation of the sovereignty of the member states. Critics of the sanctions have called them rash, overdimensioned, a massive intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign member state, and a considerable political and tactical blunder. It is difficult to explain why the member states of the EU issued a political ultimatum to Austria. Moral indignation, either genuine or feigned, frequently is a poor guide in political affairs because it tends to be categorical. A demonstrative warning and the prospect of graduated measures, based on the conduct of the ÖVP-FPÖ government, would have given the EU member states a number of policy options without sacrificing political principle.

The Neue Züricher Zeitung, always a judicious commentator on European affairs and a breath of fresh air, observed in its February 1 edition (p. 3) that the "actual reasons for the excitement in western Europe are the domestic political situations [in respective EU member states]." Every country in the European Union has their own "New Right" in some shape, manner, or form, and ostracizing Austria could be one means of dealing issues that are closer to home. It is truly unusual when Austria is admonished by Joschka Fischer, the Green Foreign Minister of Germany, about making a "historical error" and simultaneously condemned by a Gaullist president of France, a Portuguese socialist head of government, and a conservative Spanish minister president, whose own party has never really dissociated itself from its Franco roots, for "rightist extremism" without defining exactly what that is.

International reactions to the pending formation of an ÖVP-FPÖ government and the threat of EU sanctions motivated Austrian President Klestil's desire to include of a "preamble" to the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition agreement, which, given Austria's political track record since World War II, consisted of a series of political commonplaces. Therein, the Federal Government reaffirmed its commitment to individual freedom, political liberty, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, pluralism, tolerance, the European Union, cooperation, etc. The preamble recognizes Austria's "responsibility arising out the tragic history of the 20th century and the horrendous crimes of the National Socialist regime"; the singularity of the Holocaust, and entails a commitment to "a self-critical scrutiny of the National Socialist past."

The inclusion of this "preamble" in the coalition agreement was an express wish of President Klestil, who has been frank about his disapproval of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, and its ultimate intention was to dispel any doubts other European countries might have about the intentions of a ÖVP-FPÖ government. At the same time, based on Austria's track record as a functioning Western European democracy, it was not a necessary exercise, unless one is prepared to assume that the new coalition government has or could have the intention or the capacity to violate EU conventions.

There are two sovereignty issues that come up here. One is related to the sovereignty of the people in a democracy, when the minority is truly disaffected by the fact that the majority has a political program that does not conform with the minority's interests. This is the current Austrian domestic problem. The European problem is to what extent the European Union (either the member states or ultimately the European Commission) may prophylactically intervene in the domestic affairs of a member state. A lthough the EU intervention in Austrian domestic affairs provides an unprecedented example, the commentary of Austrian experts of European and international law on the EU measures has been circumspect and reserved.

I frankly have been surprised that no one has had the irony to suggest that the EU appoint a commissioner to rule Austria: the alleged renegade among the democracies of the Union. If one seeks precedents for the measures of the fourteen member states in the history of EU policy, one could refer to the EU export ban on beef from the United Kingdom during the BSE crisis a few years ago. This was an economic and public health issue. The bilateral diplomatic quarantine of Austria by its fellow EU member states operates with different mechanisms on a completely different level, although fears of contagion seem to be one of the issues at stake. Furthermore, the threat and the implementation of EU sanctions, in addition to addressing the precarious issue of limits of national autonomy in the Union using a less than auspicious case, also coincidentally have turned Jörg Haider into something he had never been beforehand: a politician of "European format" with a European audience.

Last of all, one should not forget that Austria has a good record on European integration. Two-thirds of the Austrians voted for accession to the European Union in 1994. The personal and political record of Wolfgang Schüssel as a "European politician" and of the ÖVP as a "European party" are impeccable. The case is less so with Jörg Haider and the FPÖ because they have appealed to anti-EU sentiment in Austria, but the FPÖ political commitment to integration is anchored firmly in the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition pact. However, the causa Haider has become a causa unionis for the EU: an issue of power and prestige. It will be interesting to see if and when members of EU will back down on this issue. The probability of the new Austrian government conducting itself as a renegade democracy is less than negligible. At the same time, a small state confronted with the collective resolve of fourteen others and their joint sanctions, whether justifiable or not, is not in a very good position.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The problem with this entire affair (aside from the usual emotions and name-calling) is the tremendous gap between a differentiated picture of Austria and the type of simplification with which one constantly is confronted in most of the media. If we look back on the Waldheim affair, Kurt Waldheim was many things, but not a Nazi war criminal who had inexplicably escaped justice. Analogously, Jörg Haider, a much more enigmatic figure, is many things, but he is not a neo-Nazi, and Simon Wiesenthal, who defended Waldheim against what he considered unjust accusations, has come to Haider's defense. One frequently ends up in the peculiar position of "defending" Haider because his critics frequently do not get the accusations right and are more than willing to indulge in the type of rhetorical excess that is characteristic of Haider himself.

As for the general mood in Vienna right now among the people I associate with (and they are not FPÖ voters for the most part) I observe a combination of impotence, anger, anxiety, and resolve among the Social Democrats and Greens, who oppose the coalition. The Social Democratic departure from power after thirty years hurts, of course, but Haider's rise to power is related to the shortcomings of Austrian social democracy in a number of respects. The Social Democrat-Green minority in Parliament have threatened not to give the new ÖVP-FPÖ government the traditional a 100 day "period of grace" to show what they can do before introducing a vote of no confidence. Austrian trade unionists, the structurally most conservative lobby in Austria with a wide array of acquired and expensive entitlements, are talking about "combative measures" (Kampfmassnahmen). Consensual politics is out; class struggle is in.

More widespread is a certain quiet desperation: the feeling that the damage has been done, on the one hand, and there is no changing course at this point without abandoning the principles of parliamentary democracy, on the other. The new coalition government is caught between "pressure from the street" (Druck von der Strasse), an euphemism for social democratic-Green dissatisfaction and popular protest, and "intervention from abroad" (Einmischung von aussen), another euphemism for premature EU sanctions. And the former domestic dissatisfaction does not refrain from legitimizing itself by referring to the latter criticism from abroad. In addition to these two pressure fronts, there is a third one that may or may not bear down on the new government: Jörg Haider himself. He may chose to let the government work or to undermine the coalition. However, everyone has been waiting for Jörg Haider, the young polemic agitator, to finally turn into a "statesman." He has his opportunity to do so. The open question at this point is whether he will take it or not. Many seasoned Haider-watchers are skeptical.

Should the opposition parties in Austria and the community of democratic nations measure the new born Austrian government on the anticipations of its detractors or should it be given the time to be measured on its deeds? Recently sworn in as Federal Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel has been praised by his supporters for his composure and the admirable job he had done in managing a truly precarious political situation, just as he has been damned by his critics for destroying the reputation of Austria. He has pleaded for a "de-escalation" of the situation (domestically and internationally) that would give the new government an opportunity to get to work and demonstrate its abilities. The vitality the opposition in Austria has shown in the course of the establishment of an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition indicates how lively critical voices are in the Republic of Austria, and there is no reason to assume that the opponents of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition will not vigilantly monitor the political conduct of the government. On the contrary. On Saturday, February 19, somewhere between 150,000 (police estimates) and 250,000 (estimates of the organizers) people protested on Heldenplatz in Vienna, the site of Hitler's ominous March 15, 1938 speech, against the new ÖVP-FPÖ government, racism, xenophobia, and pending reductions of social welfare benefits (Sozialabbau, i.e. the austerity measures the new government has announced to consolidate Austria's budget). Under these circumstances, one may ask if Austria needs additional monitoring by the EU or anybody else.

Politically or rhetorically downgrading Austria to the status of a semi-democratic state with a neofascist government is unfair and for Austrians an insult. Qualifications or excuses for Haider's previous revisionism are untenable. So is a collective condemnation of Austria because a party led by Haider is participating in a democratically elected and constituted coalition government. The 73% of the Austrian electorate, who did not vote for Jörg Haider or the Freedom Party, are now confronted with international sanctions, and disqualifying the 27% of those Austrians who did vote for Haider and the Freedom Party (as neo-Nazis or neo-fascists or whatever) misses the diversity of his constituency and many of the larger domestic and structural issues at stake.

However, these larger domestic issues not only are too small but also too complicated to be taken into account when the outside world looks in to the microcosm of Austria affairs. Sound bites and complexity are incompatible. That is one part of Austria's current problem. As for the rest, Austria will have ample opportunity to show that it has strong enough democratic traditions and institutions to keep its own house in order. Historians inevitably will make references to 1938 and 1934. As far as I can see, Austria has learned some political lessons in the twentieth century. Neither dictatorship nor civil war are on the horizon.

Lonnie Johnson, February 2000

Dr Lonnie Johnson is currently Executive Secretary of the Austrian Fulbright Commission.

Copyright (c) Lonnie R. Johnson and HABSBURG, 2000. All rights reserved. This article is an expanded version of an essay posted on February 8, 2000 by the H-Net discussion group HABSBURG. Central Europe Review would like to thank HABSBURG and Dr. Lonnie R. Johnson for permission to republish this essay.

For permission to republish this article either electronically or in print, please contact Lonnie R. Johnson at lrj@usia.co.at or James P. Niessen at habsburg@ttacs6.ttu.edu.

Order Lonnie Johnson's
Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends from


Other works by Lonnie Johnson:

Introducing Austria (Oesterreichischer Bundesverlag, 1987; Ariadne Press, 1989)

Vienna: The Past in the Present (with Inge Lehne, second revised edition Oesterreichischer Bundesverlag and Ariadne Press, 1995)

Other works mentioned in the text:

Anton Pelinka, Austria: Out of the Shadow of the Past

Hans-Henning Scharsach, Haiders Kampf

Norbert Leser, Zwischen Reformismus und Bolschewismus


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