The Washington Post Column

In Austria, The Fall Of an Extremist

There are few political obituaries more enjoyable to write than that of Joerg Haider, so I won’t resist the temptation: As of yesterday, Haider, the Austrian politician who came bouncing onto the political scene a few years ago wearing Spandex bicycle shorts, denouncing immigrants and spouting carefully crafted nuggets of Anschluss nostalgia, is officially a spent force. His Freedom Party, which stunned Europe in 1999 by winning 27 percent of the Austrian popular vote, sank during Sunday’s general election to 10 percent. Fittingly, it seems that Haider, who has offered to resign from politics, himself helped destroy the party he created. His penchant for conspiracy and internal party coups helped end the Freedom Party’s coalition with the Austrian center-right, and his taste for perverse politics led him to hobnob with Saddam Hussein, to the disgust of many of his countrymen. Whereas many once feared him, of late he has become a figure of fun, even the subject of popular satire. Now that his appeal is waning, his black T-shirts seem ludicrous, not sinister.

But while it’s easy to sit back and applaud the political demise of the man who once spoke of Nazi SS troops as “men of decent character,” there is also a larger lesson here, for those who want to learn it. Loath though they may be to admit it, the European leaders who froze all diplomatic relations with Austria after Haider’s party entered the Austrian government in 1999 had nothing to do with last weekend’s defeat. On the contrary, that embarrassing decision led to little more than endless protocol crises. No one knew how to treat Austrian ambassadors, whether to invite them to the meeting but not to the cocktail party afterward, to invite them to the cocktail party but not to the meeting, or to invite them to the cocktail party but leave them alone in the corner, fiddling with the ice in their drinks.

At the same time, it was clear that the motivations of the boycotters were self-serving. The Belgian leadership wanted to stave off the rise of Belgium’s own anti-establishment, anti-immigration Flemish nationalist party; the French wanted (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to block the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. Meanwhile, no one said a word against the European ex-communist leaders, on both sides of the old Iron Curtain, who had once openly sympathized with totalitarian regimes, or even participated in them. The Austrians themselves found the whole thing offensive, and the boycott probably helped, initially, to shore up the Freedom Party’s popularity. Everyone was relieved when a hastily convened commission of European “Wise Men” solemnly declared an end to the diplomatic freeze-out. Once again, the Austrian ambassador to Paris could appear on the official viewing stand at Bastille Day.

In the end, it was not outside pressure that destroyed Haider but the same Austrian democracy that initially brought him to power. For although the tone of Haider’s political pronouncements was often insidious, he was also the first Austrian politician in years to speak of taboo subjects: immigration, yes, but also high taxes, economic stagnation and the corruption brought about by several decades of complacent coalitions of interchangeable “left-wing” and “right-wing” parties. His success with these issues was not lost on Austria’s mainstream, center-right People’s Party, whose members now talk loudly about tax cuts and privatization — and scored their biggest electoral success in nearly four decades last Sunday. In effect, they stole his best (and most respectable) lines, and left him holding the Hitler legacy. That’s what can happen in working democracies: Issues that had been ignored and left to fester can suddenly help win elections.

The People’s Party also now talks openly about restricting asylum-seekers in Austria and limiting immigration, but that too may be no bad thing. Rather than shoving the whole subject of immigration to the edges of political respectability, as most European countries have done until recently, far better to have an open debate about the pros and cons, far better to discuss the numbers and the facts and let people think about it. In many European countries, unconventional “right-wing” (but not necessarily “far right”) parties have lately become the beneficiaries of discontent with politicians, or discontent with politics, or the place where people go when they feel that no one else represents their views. Their success should teach those mainstream European politicians who have, as in Austria, held power for years and years to sit up and pay attention to the electorate. The fact that so many reacted — at first — by declaring Austria diplomatically untouchable bodes ill for the health of democracy in Europe. Perhaps Joerg Haider’s inelegant departure will teach them to think differently.