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Rising from the dead – Haider presides over Austrian regional election

February 27, 2009

Some 25,000 people attended his funeral, countless books have been written about him, a bridge was named in his honour and now the spectre of Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider is dominating a regional election in Austria.

“A campaign with the tragically deceased Haider”; A dead man is spearheading us”; “And above all, the spectre of Joerg Haider” read newspaper headlines.

(Photo: Joerg Haider, May 10, 2005 /Miro Kuzmanovic)

Both of Austria’s far-right parties are staking their claim to Haider’s legacy in an election in the Alpine Province of Carinthia where he was governor for more than a decade.

Carinthia is going HIS way,” proclaim the posters of Haider’s former Freedom Party. Freedom says Haider achieved his greatest successes when heading the party.

“We will look after your Carinthia,” echo the posters of Alliance for Austria’s Future, the splinter party that Haider set up in 2005 after internal disputes within Freedom.

Both parties, which mopped up a third of the vote between them in Austria’s recent parliamentary election, recognise the mileage still to be had out of Haider’s success.

The populist leader, who led the right into a coalition government from 2000-2006, was one of Austria’s rare internationally recognised public figures.

Austria went into mourning when Haider died four months ago in a high-speed car crash, and leaders of all political colours turned up for his funeral.

(Photo:A photo of Joerg Haider stands in the St. Stephens Cathedral during a memorial service in Vienna, Oct 15, 2008/Leonhard Foeger)

“People have the impression that, through Haider, they became a force to be reckoned with in the world,” Klaus Ottomeyer, professor of psychology at the university of Klagenfurt, told Reuters.

Ottomeyer, who will publish a book in March about the making of the Haider myth, said the Carinthians have glorified their former governor as benevolent father figure, Robin Hood or even a patron saint.

This may baffle outsiders, who are mostly familiar with Haider’s blunt anti-immigrant rhetoric and verbal gaffes. His notoriety peaked in the 1990s when he cited “the proper labour policies” of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and referred to concentration camps as “penal camps” in a parliamentary debate.

But for all the far-right’s bickering over the claim to Haider’s legacy, it may be time to move on and find a new hero.

Political researcher Guenther Ogris said the Haider cult was beginning to fade, and Carinthians were turning their focus elsewhere.

“At the end of the day, the economic crisis is now the main thing on people’s minds — that is emotionally more important than the dead governor.”

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