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

Austrian Parliament A U S T R I A:
Austria's New ÖVP-FPÖ Government and Jörg Haider

Lonnie Johnson

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 (Westview, 1998) 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 events surrounding the establishment of the ÖVP-FPÖ (Austrian People's Party-Freedom Party of Austria) coalition government this past week have been dramatic and disturbing. Israel has recalled its ambassador from Austria, and the official Israeli diction for the new Austrian government is "neofascist." Earlier last week the Austrian Green EU parliamentarian Johannes Voggenhuber used the same term for the FPÖ and referred to Haider as a "fascist" without the qualification of "neo-". U.S. Ambassador Kathryn Hall is going to Washington for "consultations." The threatened EU sanctions against Austria have gone into effect (no bilateral visits on the ministerial level, although Austria's participation in all EU bodies, which are ultimately more important, is intact.) At a SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) commemoration of the February 1934 uprising, Michael Haeupel, the mayor of Vienna, has 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 thirty of them have been injured to date. When members of the ÖVP-FPÖ government were sworn into office at the Presidential Chancellery this past Friday, 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. All of this is related to the fact that Austria, in complete correspondence with the rules of parliamentary democracy, has 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. (The 125 page document with its 3 page "preamble" may be downloaded from various servers. Consult the Austrian Government Site which also provides links to the websites of the individual political parties under the icon parliament.) 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 a 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, he appeared on 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 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.

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 (Vienna: Orac Verlag), 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 same time, 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 this past week 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 held during his 50th birthday party (and during the ÖVP-FPÖ negotiations), he insulted the president of France ("what has he achieved?") and the entire Belgian government ("corrupt"). In a recent interview in Die Zeit, he said that the did not know what all of the excitement was about in the chicken stall [of the EU] because the fox was 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.

Haider is a master of insinuation, implication, and ambiguity. Pelinka provides an overview of Haider's most infamous 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, he refers to the fact that he has clearly gone on record to the contrary. 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?

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, 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 this past week 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 (Vienna: Böhlau, 1985), 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, has been part of Austria's consensual political culture: rhetorical 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 lone wolf who maintained to be representing an underground organization called the "Bauvarian Liberation Army," also was responsible for a series of letter bombings, 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. It is also worth mentioning in this context that Austria also has done an admirable job of assimilating over 60,000 Bosnian refugees.

More importantly, Pelinka 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).

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. 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 in order to attract a larger pool of voters or has a larger pool of voters in Austria has moved from the center to the right?

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)

Judging by the patterns of western European politics, however, 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 a move 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 "belated 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. When 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 in Austria (represented in Austrian parliament since 1986) and a split in the FPÖ between a handful of liberals) spearheaded by Heide Schmidt and disillusioned with the populist drift of the party under Haider (that led to the establishment of the Liberal Forum in 1993, first as a parliamentary faction, then after the elections of 1994, as an elected political party, were symptomatic of the increasing diversification of the Austrian political spectrum that has taken place primarily at the expense of the SPÖ and the ÖVP, and the rise of the FPÖ (from a 5% party in 1986 to 27% today) 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 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 unionists 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. 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 and a conservative coalition.

This is when 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, a position that rotates among member states every six months, issued a statement 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 diplomatically consulting Austria or Austrian foreign minister and ÖVP party chairman Wolfgang Schüssel. This was truly a controversial and premature measure. How can 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?

The threat of EU sanctions was a an unprecedented example of the EU 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 EU has reacted, or, according to some of the more judicious commentary appearing in European papers, overreacted, and some critics of this measure consider it a considerable political and tactical blunder. (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.)

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]." It is truly unusual when Austria is condemned by a Gaullist president in 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.

Furthermore, 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, consists of a series of political commonplaces. Therein, the Federal Government reaffirms 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 open 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 may prophylactically intervene in the domestic affairs of a member state. Although 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, and 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.

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 occasion, have turned Jörg Haider into something he had never been before: a politician of "European format" with a European audience.

Furthermore, Austria has a good record on European integration. One should not forget that 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. 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 the EU will back down on this issue if the new Austrian government succeeds in not conducting itself as a renegade democracy, and there is no reason to assume that it will.

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 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 to introduce a vote of no confidence at the inaugural session of the Parliament this week. This is an unprecedented move. Under "normal" circumstances in Austria, governments have been given a 100 day "period of grace" to show what they can do. 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 the past week of 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 demonstrate its abilities. The vitality that 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. 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 most 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 a 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 © Lonnie R. Johnson and HABSBURG, 2000. All rights reserved. First published on HABSBURG, an H-Net list for the study of East Central European History since 1500.
Central Europe Review would like to thank HABSBURG and Dr. Lonnie R. Johnson for permission to republish this essay.


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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