Austria’s Haider: a hero beyond the grave?

November 5, 2008

He may have died in a car crash last month whilst drunk, but Austrian rightist Joerg Haider is not gone.

Haider, who was enmeshed in nearly every part of Austrian political life, is now being hailed for his efforts to help two Austrian hostages being held in the Sahara months before his death.

According to a newly-published e-mail, Haider asked the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in March for help in freeing Andrea Kloiber and Wolfgang Ebner, who disappeared in February while on holiday in Tunisia. They are believed to have been held by al Qaeda’s North African wing.

The hostages were released last week, several months after Haider wrote to his close friend Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The Austrian Foreign Ministry said Libya only helped in initial negotiations but not the eventual release.

Whether Haider’s contribution was decisive or not, the news has only added to his image as a “hero of the people”.

The daily Oesterreich, which printed extracts from the e-mail, has already published a DVD of Haider’s life and romantic images of him dressed in traditional Austrian costume, looking out over the mountains of Carinthia, where he was provincial governor. Some 25,000 people attended his memorial service in Klagenfurt last month.

Many did not seem to think his divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric was much of an issue and were fiercely loyal towards Haider, one of Austria’s few internationally recognised figures.

Even Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, a Social Democrat who openly opposed many of Haider’s views, has admitted that his opponent had enormous ability to reach out to people.

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