Austria finally did it. It made international news. This time, however, it is not a ski star impressing the rest of the world or the soccer team being humiliated. Neither is it a round birthday of one of Austria's Great--Mozart and Freud have already passed their 100th mark, and Schwarzenegger still has some time to go.
This time it is a man the New York Times has introduced until recently as "Jörg Haider, leader of Austria's anti-immigrant Freedom Party, who is best known for his remarks praising Hitler's 'orderly' employment policy." That is now superfluous. Haider's name alone already sells, and his resignation Feb. 28 was news enough to make the world's most prestigious front pages. But all of them included the short disclaimer of making his resignation appear as a tactical move--and rightfully so.
In contrast to sport stars, politicians usually do not resign at the top of their career. A man who single-handedly rescued the Freedom Party after taking over its helm in 1986 does not quit when he is as close to his self-proclaimed goal of becoming Chancellor as never before. Despite his resignation as head of the Freedom Party, his successor said Haider is still the party's "leading man."
People in Austria love him. No, they do not love the fact that they can openly call him "stepfather of the right-wing terrorism" without him being able to sue--he already tried that once and lost. Austrians love him because they see a man who stands up for them. Haider got to where he is right now by speaking up for the average, working-class Austrian, by yelling loudest for their causes, by making use of populism in its purest form. So far, however, Haider has defended his clientele from other Austrians, such as the government and the established ruling parties.
But especially for a man who uses xenophobia as a main element in his political campaigns, the European Union could not have done him a bigger favor than setting a precedent by isolating one of its members. The U.S. move to withdraw its ambassador for consultations did not exactly help either. Haider moved on to bigger targets. Now he is not defending his voters from other Austrians; he is taking on the world. And his party becomes stronger and stronger.
Yes, Haider praised Hitler's employment policies, he told former SS officers they were decent men of character, and he owns an entire valley that belonged to Jews until shortly before World War II. In short, Haider is not the type of person that should run a small, idyllic country in the heart of Europe, but to stop him, we need to give his government a chance to work by itself. So far, one of the only noteworthy headlines it produced was the desire of the Justice Minister to have a Jaguar as his official car, and yesterday's news reported his resignation due to health reasons. Haider then chose Dieter Bhömdorfer, a lawyer who has defended the Freedom Party for the past few years, as the next Justice Minister--a traditionally party-independent post--and the partisan choice did not go unnoticed by Austrians.
As he is proving in his unimpressive performance as head of a federal district, Haider and his party can fail without anyone's help. Give Haider a chance to govern, and he will not become Chancellor anytime soon.
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