Joerg Haider in historical perspective
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Date: Sat, 5 Feb 2000 18:37:24 -0600
From: Mark Pittaway <M.D.Pittaway@open.ac.uk>
It would be too soon perhaps to herald the formation of a coalition between the OeVP and FPOe as a turning point but it certainly represents the most visible stage yet of the unravelling of Austria's post-war "social partnership" that has formed of the basis of politics in the Second Republic. I think we must await detailed empirical research into the history of post-war Austria to answer Ian Reifowitz's specific points. Though much has been written on the Haider phenomenon over the past fourteen years in Austria I am not sure that very much of what I have seen addresses the issues that are of interest to a contemporary historian of the country and the region. Before I go on to make more general points to the issues raised the following two books and one article do address some of these questions:
Harald Goldmann Jorg Haider und sein Publikum (Klagenfurt, 1992)
Bernhard Perchinig "National oder liberal? Die Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs" in Peter Gerlich & Wolfgang Muller (eds.) Zwischen Koalition und Konkurrenz. Osterreichs Parteien seit 1945, pp.69-90 (Vienna, 1983)
Bernhard Perchinig "Wir sind Karntner und damit hat sich's ..." Deutschnationalismus und politische Kultur in Karnten (Klagenfurt, 1983
I have followed Haider's rise closely and with considerable concern since 1989 - though I am primarily a Hungarianist I have long seen the re-making of the political field in Austria as having major implications for the states around it.
The rise of the FPOe - from 5% in 1983 to over 27% in 1999 - in my view is neither primarily the result of immigration nor of Austria's growing debate over its National Socialist past, though it is fed by these phenomena. It reflects deep insecurity in Austrian society. Since 1987 with the formation of the "grand coalition" between the SPOe and OeVP, as in much of Europe, neo-liberal policies have been implemented. Austria's substantial state sector was privatised while the large welfare state has
been cut back. With the collapse of state socialism in neighbouring states in 1989 capital and thus jobs were exported from Austria. As the economy became more internationalised during the early 1990s it was hit by recession. Unemployment reached 7% by 1993, and inequality increased sharply. As discontent increased the political system was blocked. Both the Social Democrats and the People's Party pursued similar policies. This was made most obvious to electors during the 1994 election when the then Chancellor Vranitzky of the SPOe and Vice-Chacellor Busek of the OeVp were pictured on billboards amking a virtue of the degree of agreement between the two major parties. Haider was able to skilfully exploit discontent with corruption, unemployment, insecurity and inequality to turn himself into the voice of opposition to the consensual political institutions of the Second Republic. While much of the FPOe's early gains came at the expense of the OeVp, since 1994 they have taken votes from the political left. According to exit polls in October 1999 the FPOe took more working class votes than did the SPOe (39%-37%).
Haider's historical significance it seems is breaking down public support for the politics of "social partnership". Right-wing populism, and a divisive political atmosphere will become permanent features of the political scene - whatever the future of the Schussel government in Vienna. If social division continues to increase and divisive political conflict is combined with it, this - given the inter-war precedents - is likely to lead to greater political instability in the country.
My second point is intended to be provocative. A more divisive Austrian political scene would look like those of at least one of its immediate neighbours. Hungary's right is not so dissimilar in that its conservative parties bridge a deep divide between christian democracy and darker tendencies rooted in the country's pre-1945 past. The considerable historical/political debate over the significance of the Holocaust in Hungary suggests that it is not only Austrian politicians and public figures that are prone to draw on the kinds of sentiments that Haider has done. Right-wing populism in Hungary and in other East-Central European
states has been fashionably regarded as a phenomenon connected to region's experience of socialist dictatorship. The political reactions in Austria to global economic change suggest that the time has come for historians to closely examine the continuities between the inter-war and post-1989 periods in Central Europe and examine comparatively what difference post-war political settlements on both sides of the iron curtain made.
Dr. Mark Pittaway
Lecturer in European Studies
Department of History
The Open University