Rise of the Austrian Right

Explanation and Implications

Auch jörg haider informiert sich in övp-broschüren
Rise of the Austrian Right : Explanation and Implications - Peter J Ankowitsch, Peter Sichrovsky & Professor Patrick McCarthy

Dr. Patrick McCarthy is resident Professor of European Studies at The Johns Hopkins University-SAIS Bologna Center

The formation of a government in Austria that represents a coalition of the People's Party and Jörg Haider's Freedom Party has provoked a boycott of Austria by its EU partners and worldwide publicity. The most useful service that an institution like the Bologna Center can offer is to debate the issues in a manner as calm and impartial as possible, without pretending that we enjoy a God-given insight or objectivity. So we invited representatives of the Socialist Party and of the Freedom Party who briefly presented their points of view and then answered many and varied questions from the students. The debate was lively but remained within the confines of academic discourse.

It seemed to me, as I listened to the speakers, that they each seized on one part of the central problem. This was and is that Austria needs a change of government because the Socialists and the People's Party have been in power too long and have created what one can only call a corporatist state, where politics plays too great a role at the expense both of the market and of civil society. But The Freedom Party's ability to cut back this corporatist state is weakened by the illegitimacy of its leader.

In turn this illegitimacy has two causes: Haider's views on immigration go beyond what is at present deemed acceptable in Western Europe (Britishers may remember that Enoch Powell ruined his career for the same reason). Secondly, Haider's occasional allusions to the Nazi past are the sign of an Austrian failure to confront truthfully its role in the years between the Anschluss and the 1945 defeat. This is not an exclusively Austrian failure: France was just as reluctant to face up to the reality that large numbers of Frenchmen were involved in collaboration and anti-Semitism. But one simply cannot be ambiguous about Auschwitz.

Ironically the Freedom Party will probably be unable to undertake its task of reducing the role of politicians because all its energy will be taken up defending one particular politician.

Mr. Peter Jankowitsch is a former Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs in Austria. He was also Ambassador of Austria to the United Nations and his country's first representative to the UN Security Council, as well as Chair of the UN General Assembly. Elected to the Austrian Parliament, he returned to diplomacy as the Austrian Ambassador to the OECD in Paris.

Mr. Peter Jankowitsch:

Let me begin by looking at the beginning of the year, the new millennium, when most European democracies sailed rather peacefully into the new century. Austria, on the other hand, was greeted by a hailstorm of criticism and abuse, violent attacks on its past, on its present, and by a sudden chilling of relations with some of its closest partners and associates in Europe, namely the other fourteen members of the European Union.

What happened to make Austria a country avoided not only by many Western politicians, statesmen, but also by artists and writers, intellectuals, pro­fessors and even tourists? If a country's image abroad changes this rapidly, and there is no doubt that Austria's image has been severely damaged, a simple an­swer will not suffice.

Many of the simplest answers to this question are being sold on the media market. Some perceived sinister maneuverings by the power hungry "Eurocrats" of Brussels in the ostracism of Austria. They feared that Brussels was trying, by imposing sanctions on one of the smallest and newest members oft he union, to change Austria's direction and coerce it to select a different type of government. Others suspected the invisible hand of the Socialist International was insulted by the fact that one of its member parties had lost a government position it had held for decades. Still others suggested that it was the Home Front, including the President of Austria himself, who had betrayed the new government by encourag­ing the current Portuguese Presidency and other leaders of the European Union to enact sanctions against Austria, including a freeze in bilateral relations between Austria and the other fourteen members oft he Union. None of these answers, of course, carry the slightest credibility.

The political spectrum of those in Europe, and the Western world in gen­eral, who criticize Austria is much broader than that of the Socialist International. Such people as President Chirac of France, Prime Minister Aznar of Spain, and the Foreign Minister of Belgium, who are often on the forefront in criticizing Aus­tria, hardly qualify for membership in the Socialist International. No Austrian politician, including the President, could command such influence and power in Europe as to enact so quickly the sanctions that the fourteen members of the European Union imposed when they decided to show utter displeasure with the political situation in Austria.

In order to cause such a strong and lasting reaction, the reasons must be deeper and wider and have much to do with internal developments in Austria. There have been reactions not only in the member countries of the European Union, but also all over the West: the United States, Canada, and Israel-which was the only country that immediately withdrew its ambassador from Vienna.

The reason must be that today, to the chagrin of many Austrians, many people in the West feel that Austria is drifting away from the European mainstream and moving into new and largely uncharted waters. Such isolation engenders reactions as violent as the ones we have seen. This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who remembers the world's reaction to the election of Kurt Waldheim to the presidency of Austria. That a man not seen to be fit for the highest office in a Western democracy should be elected by a majority of Austrians was a first ex­ample of the type of falling out that I mentioned and that people now see.

Many Austrians still fail to understand how a new government can create such a furor, when on the surface, nothing could be more natural than such a change of government. Two political parties who together command a sizable majority in parliament conclude a government pact and are sworn in by the presi­dent in strict compliance with the constitution. Why then such a reception in the outside world and among a growing number of Austrians? Why are Austrians feeling more and more uncomfortable, not only due to international reactions, but also because of what they see happening in Austria?

One reason is the genesis of this government. It is true that when Austri­ans voted for a new Parliament on October 3 of last year, they wanted change of a deep and permanent nature. They therefore strengthened the two parties who are seen to be the most vocal in opposition, the Freedom Party of Jörg Haider and the Green party, which was led by Professor Alexander Van der Bellen.

The two parties that had since then formed a government coalition, the Social Democrats and the Austrian People's Party of Christian Democrats, lost a considerable number of votes, so much so that the Austrian People's Party landed in third place in the electoral spectrum and was for the first time ever in Austrian postwar parliamentary history overtaken by the Freedom Party. To judge by opinion polls taken after the election, however, this vote, although expressing deep displeasure with many particularities of Austria's political system, was not a vote for a new coalition, but rather for a new type of government; for a new, more transparent government.

A vast majority polled still expressed a strong preference for the head of the Social Democrats, Mr. Victor Klima, to remain Chancellor, as well as for a continuation of the present government formula This coalition had given the country an undeniably unprecedented measure of prosperity, low unemployment, domes­tic and international security, and much international prestige, including a success­ful first presidency of the EU. Even those who had strengthened Haider's Free­dom Party seemed to prefer him and his followers as a vocal and vigilant opposi­tion rather than as a government party. For this reason, many voters seemed to disregard qualities of Mr. Haider's party and its leaders that had raised interna­tional criticism and concern.

Reacting to the evident wish of Austria's voters that the Christian Demo­crats and Social Democrats should try to come together as a coalition, the two government partners started long and protracted negotiations. These negotiations were complicated by the fact that the Austrian People's Party, shocked by its bad election results, decided to go into opposition and refuse to negotiate altogether. Had it remained in this position, it would have created a deep crisis in Austria, as the Social Democratic Party was known to have refused any government partici­pation with a Freedom Party led by Jörg Haider.

Eventually, the Austrian People's Party consented to negotiate anew gov­ernment with the Social Democrats. These negotiations took a full three months, from late October into late January. In these negotiations, the Social Democrats made wide-ranging and considerable concessions and a comprehensive govern­ment program was established, which included many reforms. During the nego­tiations, the Social Democrats were under the continuous threat of being dropped by the Austrian People's Party, which then planned to form a coalition with the Freedom Party. They went a long way to make a government without the Free­dom Party possible.

When these negotiations were completed and duly approved by the re­spective party bodies, Mr. Schlissel, the leader of the Austrian People's Party, made a surprising about-tum and asked the Social Democrats to abandon the key portfolio in the government, that of Minister of Finance, and have a reluctant trade unionist sign a government pact that would have been very difficult for the trade unionists to accept. Schlissel was long suspected by public opinion to have done everything possible to make negotiations fail in order to turn to the Freedom Party, which had for weeks held out the prospective of making him rather than Mr. Klima Chancellor of Austria. When the leader of the Social Democrats, who had negotiated for three months and made enormous concessions, refused these de­mands, negotiations were broken off. After a final short episode in which Klima tried to form a Social Democratic minority government, the leader of the Austrian People's Party, Schlissel, rapidly concluded a deal with Jörg Haider.

This genesis shows one thing: even domestically the path to this govern­ment was all but straightforward and clear, more the result of clever tactics and shrewd maneuvering than of a clear mandate by the voters. Had indeed the Peo­ple's Party and the Freedom Party campaigned openly and honestly that they wanted to form a government together, the result of this election may have been quite different. It is for this reason that many people in Austria now are to be found in the streets, accusing the new government of being certainly legal but perhaps not legitimate in a strictly democratic sense.

The second serious question this government has to face is its international acceptability. Here again there should have been few surprises for those familiar with public opinion in Europe. For many years, the political style of the leader of the Freedom Party has raised eyebrows in Europe and much of the Western world. The type of political weaponry chosen by Mr. Haider has isolated him and his political friends from every mainstream party in Europe.

The reasons why the Freedom Party is seen today by most observers to be on the far right of the political spectrum are manifold. They have to do with the fact that the leader of the Party and many of his faithful have time and again failed to show the type of distance from the darkest pages of Europe's and Austria's history that marks all other democratic parties. Apologies came, but they came late and were considered half-hearted.

The policies the Freedom Party proclaims vis a vis immigrants and foreigners cause reserve in the West and in the EU. While they may have brought votes in Vienna districts, they have found much less acceptance outside Austria. The same applies to the foreign policies proclaimed by the Freedom Party. Reso­lutely pro-Europe or pro-EU (or rather EC) before Raider's ascent to party lead­ership, the Freedom Party turned into the most anti-Europe party shortly before Austria's accession to the EU. In the referendum that confirmed Austrian EU membership by a 2/3 majority, Haider campaigned against membership, as he later campaigned against the Euro. Until his party joined the government, he opposed enlargement of the EU to the East and clamored for reduced Austrian contributions to the EU.

It is difficult to find a label for so strange a political animal as the FPO of Jörg Haider. It is very easy to call it neo-fascist or neo-nazi, but these terms are not appropriate. Populist may be more fitting a label, but even here I hesitate. Haider himself is certainly a revolutionary of the right, untiringly fighting the system that has always rejected him. Although he has gained limited access to the Aus­trian system, he continues to be rejected by the international system. What comes after the destruction of the system? The question arises as to what new system Haider would put in place of the one he wishes to destroy. Social tensions are certainly going to rise and the institutions of social partnership will no longer func­tion as before. The same will be true for the political climate; it will never be as it was before. The long-standing cooperation between Social Democrats and Chris­tian Democrats, a type of consensus born in the Nazi concentration camps where both of these parties were thrown, is a thing of the past and will be replaced by other alliances more to the left.

Even more difficult will be Austria's situation in Europe and in the West in general. A country firmly anchored in European institutions and European beliefs is now forced to operate in a venomous climate of suspicion. Sanctions against Austria put severe limitations on the government, but they also concern many ordinary people. There is now a kind of ill-advised race for inventing new sanc­tions against Austria. These sanctions hit ordinary people and not the government for which they were originally intended. Austria is being observed by the fourteen countries of Europe, and Austrians have to proclaim every day that they respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is a highly unsatisfactory and undigni­fied state of affairs. Help and sympathy from our friends abroad will assist us a great deal; sanctions will not.

Mr. Peter Sichrovsky is an international journalist and author. He is a mem­ber of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party) and has been a member of the European Parliament since 1996.

Mr. Peter Sichrovsky:

We have heard a very dramatic description of the disaster situation of Austrians within the country and abroad. I will give you a few examples of this drama. For example, the last time I was in Brussels, my taxi driver stated that he was not accepting any Austrian guests anymore. We tried to book a restaurant in the evening for a group of Austrians and the restaurant said "We do not serve any food to Nazis." We received the same reaction from other groups and from hotels in France and Belgium. Suddenly an anti-fascist collective behavior has come over Western Europe and finally recognized Austrians as the "pure devils of Eu­rope." We have a group of assistants who work for us in the European Parlia­ment. They are young students and are learning French. Their French teachers canceled their lessons because they said that they do not teach Nazis anymore. A student exchange was canceled with Austrian schools. Today I heard that in a riding competition in Grenoble, one of the Austrians was uninvited. I asked the council of Grenoble if the horse was still invited. I am still waiting for the answer to this query.

This situation may be analyzed on two levels. We can argue on a very rational, logical level and say that this is not fair. This behavior is directed against a government that has been elected. I see it in a different way than Mr. Jankowitsch. For instance, he didn't tell you that the Socialist chancellor, Mr. Klima, offered the Freedom Party three positions in his government if we would support his govern­ment. Then after two or three years, when everything has calmed down, they would form a coalition with us. When we refused, all of the difficulties began. So there is a different explanation for this, but I don't want to argue against everything Mr. Jankowitsch said. A lot has happened and a lot will happen in the future; it was not easy to end a government in Austria that had more or less governed Austria since the war. There had been a Socialist chancellor in Austria for forty years.

In Austria, we had a kind of democracy in which it was impossible to get anything without being a member of one of the two parties. When I was 19 years old and tried to move out of my parents' house, I went to the local community center to get an apartment and they asked me whether I was Socialist or Con­servative. When I said I was just 19 years old and wanted an apartment, they informed me that I had to be in one party or the other, otherwise I could not get an apartment. I wanted to work as a teacher before I finished my studies, so I went to the local school in the area, again the same question, whether I was Socialist or Conservative. When I said I wasn't a member of either, I was refused a job.

Not one position in a bank in Austria, in the railway system, or in the post office was available without membership in one of the two parties. Austria is the only democracy in Western society in which all of the high-ranking positions in the banking system, industry, telecommunications, were divided between the parties. The whole society was divided. It taught you as a young student that no career was possible if you didn't join one of the parties very early. This is one of the reasons so many intelligent Austrians left the country.

I can give you a few examples where I disagree with the propaganda directed against the Freedom Party. First, regarding immigration, I am constantly confronted with the belief that the Freedom Party only wins elections because it is anti-foreign and racist. We asked the Freedom Party supporters after the last election why they voted for the Freedom Party and immigration was only the fifth most important issue. Their priorities were anti-corruption, change of the system, anti-socialism, and liberalization of the market system. Immigration was totally unimportant as a motivation. The Viennese Freedom Party was heavily criticized after the election, having been the most aggressive on the issue of immigration.

In another poll, we found out that among the age group between 25-3 5, the Freedom party was the number one party of all the voters. We were the number one party among all professional women. This is not the party of the old Nazis. It is not so simple to answer the Austrian problem. The polls have changed. The last polls showed that the Austrian population definitely supports this govern­ment. Over fifty percent said that this government should be given a chance. It is not that fewer and fewer people trust this government. It is exactly the opposite. More and more people want this government to work for some time to find out if it functions, or if it doesn't function. This is a very normal development in democ­racy.

Why is Europe today, and also part of the Western world, so deeply concerned about an extreme right development in Austria and also deeply hurt by any comment about the Second World War and the Holocaust, specifically regarding Austria? We have to be very open about our past. We have to accept that our governments in the past created a deep misunderstanding over the last forty-five years and also anger internationally by not accepting our responsibility concerning the Second World War. Incidentally, there never was a Freedom Party in these governments, and never a Freedom Party member as a chancellor. There was only a coalition for a short time. Ninety percent of the chancellors were So­cialist, and for a short time Conservative chancellors.

It was the Socialist party who, after the War and deep into the 1950' s, used an election poster that said, "Who Once Voted National and Socialist Can Today Vote for the Socialists." I remember also a slogan when Adolf Schaerf, the Austrian Socialist president was elected: "Who Once Voted for Adolf Can Do It Again." The Socialists also denied any kind of payment to the returning Austrian Jewish population. It was a long fight for the Jewish population who came back to Austria to get a little bit back from the Austrian government.

Austria continuously talked about how it was a victim of the war, how we never really took responsibility. This is one of the reasons why other European countries are very sensitive about Austria today. There is another level that has nothing to do with Austria. I tried to explain this and it is not easy to explain. About ten years ago I wrote a book called Born Guilty. It was a book with interviews of children who came from Nazi families. The children, who had been born after the war, talked about their relationship with their parents. In a strange way, the Austrian war generation never felt guilty about what happened in the war and never accepted its responsibility. Those who had participated in the war tried to stop history and start anew after the war. The result was exactly the opposite. By denying their responsibility for what they did, they passed the guilt on to the next generations. Today, the second and third generations after the war, young people, are much more sensitive and in a way feel guiltier than their own parents and grandparents.

We have a very specific sensitivity, almost a post-Holocaust sensitivity in Europe and throughout the world that forces us, and I think this is the biggest mistake of the Freedom Party, to be extremely sensitive when it comes to state­ments and descriptions of the Holocaust and the Second World War. This is a development we underestimated as the Freedom Party and also as Austrians, including the Socialists and the conservatives.