The Haider Phenomenon in Austria: Examining the FPO in European ContextSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
In the Austrian national elections held October 3, 1999, the far-right Freedom Party (Freiheitspartei Österreichs, hereafter FPÖ), headed by Jörg Haider, won second place, receiving support from 26.9 percent of the electorate. The swearing in of a coalition government composed of the FPÖ and the conservative People's Party (or ÖVP), on February 4, 2000, provoked intense political turmoil within the European Union. Bilateral relations between the 14 and Austria were downgraded to a bureaucratic level. No Austrian representative on the cabinet level was welcome on bilateral missions in the EU capitals. No Austrian ambassador would be allowed to meet cabinet members of the 14 governments. The European Commission further declared that if the Austrian government violated any of the common European values, it would not hesitate to start the procedure leading to the cancellation of Austria's voting rights in the Council. This could be a first step towards Austria's expulsion from the EU. The European Parliament passed, by an overwhelming majority, a resolution condemning the FPÖ's inclusion in the government, stating that this act "legitimizes the extreme right in Europe." Those favoring the resolution included a wide political spectrum.
As a follow up to these measures, the EU 14 in September, 2000 commissioned a panel consisting of former Finnish president Athisaari, German international law professor Frowein, and former Spanish cabinet minister (and EU-commissioner) Oreja to evaluate the human rights record of the Austrian government and the nature of the FPÖ. While the panel called for an end to the boycott, it stated that the Austrian government's declared determination to fight anti-Semitism and xenophobia must "be evaluated in the context of what will be described as the ambiguous language being repeatedly used by some high representatives of the FPÖ."
The Real Issue: The Particular Nature of the FPÖ
The reason for this unique European response is that the EU sees the FPÖ as a party with an openly racist and xenophobic agenda and is committed to preventing such a party from having a decisive role within the Union.
Is the EU's approach legitimate? The answer to this question depends on the answer to another question: Is the EU's image of the FPÖ correct? Thus, the real issue is determining the specific character of the FPÖ.
The FPÖ can be better understood by examining both its historic roots and its present agenda. The party was founded in 1956 by former Nazis for former Nazis. Its first chairman, Anton Reinthaller, was a former SS-general, and almost all of its rank and file were former Nazi party members. From its very beginning, the FPÖ represented the tradition of the Pan-German camp in Austria, which became fully integrated into the Austrian NSDAP in the 1930s.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the FPÖ tried to change its image. The party redefined itself as centrist and liberal, and it formed a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) in 1983. Jörg Haider was the most outspoken opponent of these changes. When he became party chairman in 1986, his leadership was The price the FPÖ had to pay for this development was its total isolation in Europe. It did not belong to any European umbrella organization. Within Austria, the FPÖ became the most vocal and persistent opponent of Austria's accession to the EU..
Not surprisingly, when FPÖ representatives joined the European Parliament in 1995, no party group was interested in welcoming them as members, while the other Austrian representatives joined the different factions-the conservative, the social democratic, the green and the liberal groups. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come in 2000: Nobody of any significance wanted friendly or even normal relations with the FPÖ.
The FPÖ's rise after 1986 has always been seen in the context of the party's right-wing past and present. Probably no other Austrian phenomenon of the 1990s has been observed, described, analyzed and explained as much. There is a broad consensus that the FPÖ is a unique specimen. It can be explained by two main factors, which are not necessarily linked. First, it is a "populist" party. It voices the protest of "outsiders" against "insiders," of "have-nots" against "haves," of "modernization losers" against "modernization winners." Second, the FPÖ is a "right wing" party. It has a tradition of trivializing Nazism as well as mobilizing prejudices against "others." Xenophobic and (at least indirectly) racist attitudes play a significant role in its outlook.
Until 2000, the FPÖ was able to criticize the social democratic SPÖ and the conservative ÖVP as "old" parties representing an outdated political cartel. In the post-1945 power arrangement in Austria, the SPÖ and ÖVP established a political culture of "consociationalism," which helped to stabilize a democratic polity by dividing political power between these two parties. The FPÖ was relegated to the role of the outsider. During the (first) grand coalition, from 1945 to 1966, the FPÖ was the sole opposition in parliament, but this monopoly did not help the Freedom Party increase the 5 to 7 percent of the votes it got at the national level. This situation did not change during the years of one-party government (1966 to 1983) or even during the SPÖ-FPÖ government. The pre-Haider FPÖ, which finally had its share in the government, was to all appearances stagnant.
The return of the grand coalition after the 1986 elections was the result of Haider's access to the party leadership, and Haider's further electoral successes were the result of the re-established coalition. Because the SPÖ had declared it would never ally itself with the Haider FPÖ, and because the ÖVP was divided with respect to a possible alliance with the (new-old) FPÖ, there was no other way to get a parliamentary majority. But, differently than during the first grand coalition, opposition to this government flourished: The newly established Greens came into parliament as a fourth party, and the FPÖ started a period of rapid growth at the expense of the SPÖ and ÖVP. Haider's success thus lies in a combination of social, economic and political changes.
The Populist Factor behind the FPÖ's Success
Now, almost half a century after its founding, the FPÖ represents a different, new generation-one led by politicians born after 1945. The party's electoral success cannot be explained by pointing to a revival of the old type of Nazism. Instead, the data provided by electoral research give a clear picture of the FPÖ's electorate as typically young, male, blue-collar, relatively less educated and secular. Before Haider became chairman in 1986, the FPÖ had been a traditional bourgeois party with a more rural than urban background. And so the perception of the FPÖ as a socially conservative "bourgeois" party is no longer accurate, nor is the expectation that the FPÖ-ÖVP coalition would be an alliance of anti-socialist forces compatible with the social composition of the new electorate responsible for the FPÖ's rise.
Any coalition can be characterized by some contradictions. But the present Austrian coalition includes some very specific contradictions: The ÖVP was the party that had started to push for Austria's EU membership in the 1980s. It was the ÖVP that succeeded in convincing the SPÖ of the advantages of membership. Since the 1950s, the FPÖ had been more pro-European than the two other traditional parties, but it reversed course when the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition applied for EU membership in 1989 and became the most ardent opponent of the EU as an overall concept. The FPÖ-ÖVP coalition is thus an alliance of the most active pro-EU party and the most active anti-EU party.
Coincidentally, Europe became the main problem and even obstacle for this coalition from its very beginning. The EU's policy is directed at an Austrian government that reflects a striking inconsistency vis-à-vis Europe. Even if it is clear that the sanctions were not justified by the FPÖ's anti-EU record but by its history of xenophobic and racist policies, the European response was also an indirect answer to this contradiction.
Another contradiction is the alliance of a very traditional party-the People's Party-with one that, despite its roots in Austrian tradition, has become a striking example of "postmodern" politics characterized by sound bites, video-clips, and entertainment. The FPÖ presents itself as a party that fully accepts that most voters are not especially interested in politics, and it successfully appeals to that majority. It does not claim to have a consistent message or platform. For this audience, a consistent agenda is simply not necessary, and may even be counterproductive. The FPÖ's mixed bag of messages-excluding "them" (especially foreigners) and opposing "them" (the traditional political class)-gives voice to the protest of those who at once feel "in" (as Austrians, as non-foreigners) and "out" (as social underdogs, as excluded from the political class).
The ÖVP, on the other hand, is a very traditionally structured party. Its membership is extremely high and its internal hierarchy is based on an extremely well organized "Bünde," which follow specific patterns of professional affiliations (farmers, employers, employees). The FPÖ, especially since 1986, is a party with no traditional organization. It is striking that while the FPÖ's proportion of votes rose from 5 percent to 27 percent, it was not able to attract a significant number of new party members. Indeed, during the years of Haider's electoral successes, the FPÖ downsized its party apparatus, while increasing the number of organized local groups.
The "new" FPÖ is thus based on a structure rather unusual for Austria: less traditional organization, comparatively little emphasis on membership, but full concentration on voters and elections. In that respect, the FPÖ can be called "postmodern"-especially compared with the ÖVP and SPÖ, which are still characterized by a traditional emphasis on local organizations and on maximizing membership. The FPÖ has become a political party that concentrates solely on campaigning.
This is all part of a populist agenda directed against the institutions of representative government - especially parties and organized interests, parliament and the formalized version of democracy represented by parliamentary rule. This phenomenon is not unique, and it does not explain the unusual response to the FPÖ's inclusion in the Austrian government. There is an additional factor that must be considered for a better understanding for the FPÖ's specific character: the party's Nazi roots.
The FPÖ as an Austrian Phenomenon
The FPÖ's success and even its special quality would not be possible in any other European democracy, especially not in Germany. The German "re-education" and the re-alignment of the German party system after 1945 excluded any party that demonstrated ambivalence regarding the NS-regime. Austria, though, thanks to the "Waldheim affair," came under suspicion of double-talking about Nazism: arguing that it had been the "first victim" of Hitler's Germany and while appeasing the significant number of (former) members of the NSDAP. After Waldheim, Haider and his party became the focus of this suspicion.
The FPÖ has become, in many respects, the most Austrian of the Austrian parties, by overcoming the contradiction between "Austrian patriotism" and "pan-German nationalism." In its early years, the FPÖ had opposed the idea of a specific Austrian national identity and acted as the heir to the pan-German tradition, which included the years of Nazi rule in Austria. During the party's liberal period, especially between 1978 and 1986, it played down these roots and pragmatically accepted Austrian patriotism. When Haider became chairman, the party returned to the pan-German tradition. Haider's well-known remark about the Austrian nation being an "ideological monster" ("ideologische Missgeburt") was squarely in the tradition of pan-Germanism, which never accepted that Austria as a country could have a distinct Austrian, non-German character.
But in the 1990s, Haider tried to reconcile his own and his party's pan-German outlook with Austrian patriotism, which was especially designed to withstand the appeal of Nazism and Nazi Gemany. Haider's "Contract with Austria," patterned after the ideology of the U.S. Republicans and Newt Gingrich in 1994, had a strong "Austria first" emphasis. This patriotic attitude helped the party transcend pan-German traditions, which did not attract many younger Austrians. The FPÖ in the 1990s became the party of both German nationalism and Austrian patriotism.
By bridging the gap between an Austrian, non-German orientation and an Austrian, pan-German one, the FPÖ was able to muster all the ideological inclusiveness necessary to create a distinct exclusiveness. An analysis of the rhetoric used in the Austrian parliament showed that FPÖ members used the most aggressive terms against "them," leading all other parties in the exploitation of xenophobic resentment. When Haider compared the number of foreigners living in Austria with the number of unemployed, he used the same pattern as the Nazis had used. Foreigners replaced Jews, but the message was the same: the enemy is responsible for unemployment. And when Haider used the term parasites to explain social problems, he used another term familiar from the Nazi period. This parallel to Nazism is the factor that makes the FPÖ different from "populism" in general. The FPÖ's populism emerges directly from an unbroken Nazi tradition.
In that respect, the FPÖ phenomenon of 2000 is in direct succession to the Waldheim phenomenon of 1986. When Kurt Waldheim was elected president in 1986, critical observers realized that a majority of Austrians saw no reason to withhold their votes from a candidate who was trying to make Austria and the world forget about his years as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht. Austria's long tradition of anti-Semitism was suddenly a topic of an international debate.
Haider had always defended Waldheim against his critics. Haider said that the president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, was worse than Goebbels. In 1988, Haider declared that Austria needed not to be liberated from its "democratically elected president [but] from the manipulators of this campaign."
By trivializing Nazism, Haider's rhetoric reminds observers of Austria's tradition of playing down its involvement in the Nazi past, even of playing down the Nazi past itself. This linkage to Nazism makes the FPÖ's populism specific.
In 1945, the Austrian government declared itself the "first victim" of Hitler's aggression. This was the term used by the Allies in Moscow in 1943-but the Austrian government usually quoted only the first part of the Moscow Declaration and not the second part, which gave Austria and Austrians a kind of co-responsibility for Hitler's war. Official Austria wanted to absolve itself of any responsibility for Nazism. Such "amnesia" made it possible after 1945 to integrate former Nazis into the political system. And the very same amnesia made it possible for Austria to invent and then sell a "usable past," an image of itself as permanent victim.
Westernization - Revisited?
Almost immediately after 1945, the Austrian government started to build a special relationship with the United States and with Western Europe. In 1947, it decided to accept the American invitation to participate in the Marshall Plan, despite having one third of its territory occupied by Soviet forces. And despite declaring its neutrality in 1955-part of a bargain for the withdrawal of the occupying powers-Austria exploited every possible link to the West with the exception of NATO membership.
As soon as the East-West conflict ended, Austria applied for EU membership and became a member in 1995. This was the logical consequence of a decades-long, specific orientation. And even the principle of "permanent neutrality" has lost most of its significance. In 1999, Austria seemed to have reached the final destination on its path toward full integration into Western Europe.
Since February 2000, things have changed dramatically. Even in lifting the boycott, the EU 14 declared that they will continue to observe the FPÖ in a particular way- a unique policy within the European Union.
Is this intervention in Austria's internal affairs? The answer is no, neither in theory nor in practice. The EU is at once a federation and a confederation. Its federal character has been strengthened by the treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam. Membership in this federation is like membership in a club, and the other club members insist on their right to stop speaking to one member who does not behave properly. The EU does not dictate who should govern in Austria. The EU (speaking through the 14 other members) simply doesn't want to be friendly with a party who violates the basic values the EU represents.
Is this a double standard? Why didn't the EU react in a similar way when the Alleanza Nazionale, the "postfascist" Italian party, was part of the coalition government under Silvio Berlusconi in 1994? The explanation is that in 1994, when the Maastricht treaty was being ratified and before the Intergovernmental Conference leading to the Amsterdam treaty had even started, there was less emphasis on the EU's federal character. There is also reason for Europe to see the trivialization of German fascism (Nazism) more critically than it sees the trivialization of Italian fascism: Nazism, not Italian fascism, was responsible for the Holocaust.
The European Union has entered new territory. It has started to adopt specific values as a standard for democratic governments within the Union. It is understandable that some call the EU's response an overreaction. This criticism could even signal an incipient alienation between Austria and the EU, a possible "Serbianization" of Austria: in their anger, a majority of Austrians could rally around the government and accept the FPÖ as a party wronged by Europe
Of course, Austria is not Serbia, and Chancellor Schüssel is not former President Milosevic. Austria has not stopped being a liberal democracy. But the victim mentality creates a parallel atmosphere: The Austrian government and a significant part of Austrian public opinion see the whole country as the victim of a conspiracy directed by some sinister (French and/or leftist) center.
Such a reaction is possible because of a lack of sensitivity to right-wing extremism in a country that-together with Germany-bears a historical responsibility for Nazism. There has been significant tolerance in Austria for former Nazis who reentered political life after 1945. There has been significant tolerance for historical revisionism-honoring ardent Nazis and neglecting their victims. And there has been significant tolerance for the intolerance of right-wing violence.
What went wrong, and what can be done about this kind of right-wing populism? The FPÖ-ÖVP coalition tried to reassure Europe by issuing "Responsibility for Austria-A Future in the Heart of Europe." This document was the preamble that-at the insistence of Federal President Thomas Klestil-the two coalition partners officially signed and made part of their agreement. In this declaration, the government "condemns and actively combats any form of discrimination, intolerance, and demagoguery in all areas. . . . The Federal Government works for an Austria in which xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism have no place. . . . The Federal Government supports the Charter of European Political Parties for a Non-Racist Society and commits itself to work for the exemplary realisation of its fundamental principles in Austria."
The "Charter of European Political Parties for a Non-Racist Society" referred to above prohibits political parties from stirring up prejudices related to race, ethnicity, national identity, or religious creed. It was signed by many European and some Austrian parties-though not by the FPÖ or ÖVP. To make this credibility gap even wider, two of the candidates whom the FPÖ and ÖVP nominated for cabinet positions were not appointed by the Federal President, for Klestil would not accept persons who had clearly violated the principles of this charter. Hilmar Kabas, the chairman of the FPÖ's Viennese regional branch responsible for a vitriolic electoral campaign full of open xenophobia and racism, was nominated for defense minister. And Thomas Prinzhorn, one of the leading FPÖ candidates known for his blatantly xenophobic remarks during the 1999 campaign, was to become the minister of finance. By nominating these men, the FPÖ and ÖVP ridiculed the values they had just promised to cherish. The message they sent to the Austrian public was clear: The values of the European Union are not to be taken seriously. We can pay lip service to these values, but then we'll continue as before. The Union's response must be seen from the viewpoint of this experience.
The Austrian polity must learn that in order to be accepted by Europe, it has to move in the direction it should have taken decades ago. First, taboos must be established. Playing with racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic resentments is not to be tolerated in a democratic society. Anyone who appeals to these instincts must be thrown out of the circle of credible politicians.
Second, political decision-makers should agree that ethnic or racist exclusion may not be used for political purposes. A strong consensus at the highest levels must prevent any ethnic or racist demagoguery. Third, to change the traditions of aggressive exclusion inherent in the Austrian society, a long-term program of political education and enlightenment should be implemented.
The end of the bilateral boycott has not completely ended Austria's isolation within the EU. Austrian democracy will overcome that isolation when the electorate learns to accept democracy not only as party competition but also as a set of undisputed values. The EU sanctions could have a positive impact: Once the sanctions start to hurt, Austria could start to learn.
Anton Pelinka founded the Department of Political Science at the University of Innsbruck in 1975. One of Austria's best known and most prolific political scientists, he has written 14 books, including major studies of Wojciech Jaruzelski and postwar Austrian politics (most recently Austria: Out of the Shadow of the Past, 1998). Pelinka is currently a visiting professor at Michigan, jointly appointed by the departments of German Studies and Political Science. A longer version of the following article, with annotations, can be found on the Center for European Studies website: http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/ces/