Mr. Joerg Haider, the controversial leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, has resigned as head of the party. The move is intended to quiet the firestorm of international criticism that followed the decision to include Freedom in the new coalition government in Vienna. In fact, it changes very little. Although Mr. Haider has been the focus of outrage, it is the party’s participation in the Cabinet that is problematic. Handing over the position of party chairman does not change that fact. And given Mr. Haider’s control of the party, it could compound the situation.
Having placed second in national elections held last year, it seemed only natural that the Freedom Party would join the government. However, the party’s political positions are anti-immigrant and downright xenophobic. As such they clash with Austria’s obligations as a member of the European Union. Worse, Mr. Haider’s political career has been studded with comments that are sympathetic to the Nazis. In the past, he has praised Adolf Hitler’s “orderly employment policies” and the soldiers that served in the Waffen SS.
This disqualified him and Freedom from government as far as the Social Democrats, Austria’s largest party, were concerned. Unfortunately, the Social Democrats could not strike a deal with their longtime coalition partners, the People’s Party. After months of fruitless negotiations, the People’s Party turned to Freedom. They did reach agreement, and last month — to the dismay of much of the world and the outrage of members of the European Union — Freedom joined the Cabinet.
To forestall some of the criticism, Mr. Haider took no post in the new government. That made no difference. Austria has been ostracized by the EU and condemned by other countries. Last weekend, in an effort to end the controversy, Mr. Haider stepped down as party chairman.
The move changes little. Mr. Haider will maintain considerable influence over the party. His replacement, Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, has said that she will continue to work closely with Mr. Haider. Party officials have said that the former chairman will now serve as a kind of “supervisory board member.” That is no surprise. Virtually all of the senior Freedom Party members owe their political careers to Mr. Haider. The six members who serve in the Cabinet have proved to have no distinguishing characteristics, apart from being photogenic.
By virtually every account, Mr. Haider is the Freedom Party. He has led it from the political wilderness to the Cabinet. As Austria’s most charismatic politician, he has shown an uncanny knack for capturing populist sentiment. Ever the opportunist, Mr. Haider has even been able to use European outrage to bolster his own position, arguing that Austria is being unfairly singled out and mistreated. His resignation allows him to claim that he has sacrificed himself for the nation.
The danger is that now Mr. Haider will be even freer to criticize his own government. Silence is not his strong suit. As he resigned, Mr. Haider blasted France, threatening to hold up EU business until Austria was reinstated as a full partner in the union.
Even if he chooses not to speak out against unpopular economic decisions, he can disassociate himself from them. The fear is that he will shape public sentiment in preparation for another national election. When he senses the mood is right, he will pull Freedom from the Cabinet to trigger a crisis. Then he will be positioned to run for chancellor himself. His Freedom Party colleagues acknowledge that Mr. Haider still eyes the chancellorship.
Yet, this dispute transcends Mr. Haider himself. Freedom’s declared policies contravene the spirit of the EU. Its presence in the government makes it difficult for Austria to fulfill its EU obligations. Worse, it moves the political center in Europe further to the right, encouraging and legitimating equally extremist parties. Freedom Party members say that their deeds are important, not their words. That is true, up to a point. That point is their refusal to disavow the past and to make an unambiguous break with those monstrous comments.
Thousand of Austrians have joined the protests against Freedom’s participation in the new government. That is reassuring, but it underscores the failure of the country’s ruling elite to come to grips with the challenges they face. Mr. Haider is an opportunist; his rise to power is a result of the gap between the Austrian public’s expectations and what their leaders have delivered. Mr. Haider’s latest move only better positions him to exploit that disaffection.
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