About 25,000 people filled the streets of Klagenfurt, Jörg Haider's former political stronghold, for the funeral rites yesterday of Austria's far-right populist leader, who died last weekend in a car crash while drunk.
The controversial man was newsworthy to the last. Even as lederhosen-clad mourners left wreaths in tribute to their political hero, a German tabloid was revealing details of his final night out. Bild published pictures of him at the launch of a new newspaper, posing with a mini-dressed blonde draped all over him. Then, said Bild, he headed not for home, but for Stadtkrämer, a local gay bar. It was after spending time there that he got into his Volkswagen Phaeton and, with his blood alcohol level four times the legal limit, drove off. Moments later, his car, going at more than 80mph, flipped over, killing Mr Haider instantly.
But details such as these are never likely to dent the enthusiasm for Mr Haider among his followers. He might have been a worldwide bogey figure, but to many in his beloved Carinthia, he was more than a mere leader. And yesterday, thousands of his devotees joined official Austria and Mr Haider's widow in mourning. "He was," said Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer at an open-air memorial service in Klagenfurt's main square, "a man who could leave no one cold, whether in a positive or a negative sense."
It was a measure of this that about 12,000 people had queued silently on Friday to pay tribute at his closed coffin. Mourners added wreaths to the dozens put outside local government headquarters since his death on 11 October.
Then, yesterday, Mr Haider's pale wood coffin, decked in rich red flowers and ribbon, was taken from the government headquarters to the town square accompanied by solemn brass band music. After a public memorial, Mr Haider's body was taken to Klagenfurt's 16th-century cathedral, where Mozart's Requiem was played. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader, attended. He befriended Mr Haider during his Vienna student days.
Mr Haider, one of Austria's rare internationally recognised public figures, led the right into a coalition government from 2000-06 and helped to thrust anti-immigrant politics into the European mainstream with his blunt rhetoric. He had been governor of Carinthia for more than a decade and was seen by many as a leader with a common touch who took on the political establishment in Vienna.
Mr Haider had since significantly toned down his rhetoric, and in 2005 broke away from the Freedom Party to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria, meant to reflect a turn towards relative moderation. Mr Haider tried to distance himself from his rightist past, which included a reference to concentration camps as "the punishment camps of National Socialism". He staged a comeback and helped the far-right to soar to almost 30 per cent of the vote in last month's national elections. His party won 10.7 per cent, up from just over 4 per cent in the previous elections. The Freedom Party won 17.5 per cent.
Such was the attendance at yesterday's funeral that screens were set up around the town to show the ceremonies, which were broadcast live on national television. Mr Gusenbauer, a Social Democrat who often openly opposed Mr Haider's views, spoke of his former political opponent's ability to reach out to people. "The large turnout today and in the past days shows that Haider didn't just mean a great deal to his family but also that he was able to move people," he said.Reuse content