Haider is back. Just don't mention the war

Last time he was in power, his nation became a pariah state. These days, Jörg Haider is more likely to praise the EU than the Nazis, although he and his party still hold controversial views about immigrants. Tony Paterson meets Austria's comeback kid

Jörg Haider, the far-right politician who turned Austria into an international pariah less than a decade ago because of his sympathetic views about Nazi Germany, is aiming for a surprise comeback in elections this weekend.

When he was part of the Austrian government in 1999 the rabble-rousing populist described Nazi SS veterans as "men of honour" and praised Hitler's employment policies, triggering European Union sanctions against Austria as a result.

Mr Haider, 58, has been mostly out of national politics ever since, but in Sunday's parliamentary elections he is hoping to return with a result that will leave him holding the balance of power, and maybe even offer him the chance of becoming head of state.

In an interview at the headquarters of his Alliance for the Future of Austria party in Vienna, Mr Haider told The Independent: "I want to run for the post of Chancellor of Austria – I am convinced that I can offer an alternative to those voters who have had enough of the failures of the outgoing grand coalition government."

Austria's grand coalition, comprising the conservative People's Party and the centre-left Social Democrats, collapsed in July after months of infighting. Neither of the two parties wants to form another alliance. Opinion polls published this week suggest that each will secure only around 25 per cent of the vote. The forecasts suggest that a further 25 per cent of votes will go to Austria's populist far-right bloc comprising the Freedom Party and Mr Haider's Alliance.

Mr Haider is banking on such a constellation leaving the far-right bloc as potential kingmakers. He says he is open to the idea of forming a coalition with either of the two main parties. And as a well-known figure in Austrian politics and a seasoned governor of the state of Carinthia, he sees himself as the ideal candidate for chancellor.

The veteran right-winger's praise for Hitler's employment policies and his attendance at a rally of SS veterans provoked widespread international criticism and charges that Austria had failed to learn the lessons of its Nazi past. Mr Haider says those days are now over but he added: "We are not going to let the outside world dictate to Austria how it should deal with the past."

Vienna is plastered with election billboards displaying colour photographs of a permanently tanned Mr Haider. He is shown wearing checked shirts and peasant costumes in an apparent appeal to Austrian country folk. "Let's roll up our sleeves and get on with the job – vote Jörg Haider – the original," proclaim the slogans. For his interview in the top-floor office of his Vienna HQ however, Mr Haider showed up in a figure-hugging white leather jacket and skin-tight trousers. He insisted that during his absence from Austria's national political scene he had become more reasonable and responsible. "Austria had reached a dead end with the grand coalition. We have lost out against chief industrial competitors in Germany and missed a chance," he explained. "I want to put Austria back in front," he added, listing a series of proposals for government funding for ailing medium-sized businesses. Mr Haider's confrontation with the EU also seemed to be over. Unlike his right-wing Freedom Party competitors who are advocating that Austria leave the EU, he wants his country to remain, although as a critical member.

His new-found enthusiasm may have something to do with the fact that Austria has benefited hugely from EU membership. In recent years the country has managed to expand its trade with eastern Europe. Unemployment is around 3 per cent and Austria now imports thousands of young German "guest workers" each year.

However despite the "responsible" rhetoric, it was clear that the governor of Carinthia continues to hold extreme views about immigrants. In the run-up to the election Mr Haider's Alliance had been conducting a controversial campaign in the southern city of Graz. It featured a large poster of an immigrant beggar woman clad in what appeared to be filthy clothes, sitting on a step in the centre of Graz. The slogan reminded voters that Mr Haider's party would "Clean up Graz". And alongside were posters, displaying the party's leading politicians sweeping the streets with brooms.

Mr Haider exploded at the suggestion that his poster was reminiscent of the anti-immigrant campaigning of the right-wing populist in next-door Switzerland, Christoph Blocher. "I know the British press, it is always on the look out for such negative extremism," he said. "Sarkozy, the President of France, used similar language after the riots in Paris. You cannot criticise us for using the same methods as the current president of the EU," he insisted, claiming that his campaign was designed at rooting out a "beggars' mafia" that had invaded part of Austria. Indeed, Mr Haider and his party see Austria threatened by a massive influx of criminals from eastern Europe.

Ironically, the biggest threat to his political re-emergence after this weekend is the leader of Austria's other right-wing organisation – the Freedom Party which Mr Haider left in 2005 following a split in the organisation, taking all of the Freedom Party's MPs with him.

Mr Haider's Alliance for the Future of Austria is the junior partner in the bloc. Polls suggest that most far-right votes, amounting to around 17 per cent, will go to the Freedom Party headed by Mr Haider's old protégé turned enemy, Heinz-Christian Strache. A 39-year-old former dental technician, Mr Strache has been running a virulently anti-foreigner campaign with slogans such as "Flights home for asylum cheats". He recently failed to win a court action against a magazine which accused him of having neo-Nazi contacts.

Mr Haider and Mr Strache have made it plain in the past that they consider themselves arch rivals and are said to dislike each other intensely. But Mr Haider has since indicated that he may have to work together with his enemy if he wants a taste of political power. "I will have to co-operate. He may not be my ideal candidate, but we will have to make compromises," he said.

Rise of the right The power of xenophobia

Galvanised by the issues of Third World immigration and Islam, right-wing parties are a force to be reckoned with across much of Europe today. Several of them have succeeded in rebranding themselves as traditional conservatives rather than quasi-Fascist.

In Norway the anti-immigrant Progress Party is now the largest in the land. Like other right-wing parties in Scandinavia, it has enjoyed surging support since the Islamic cartoon affair two years ago. In Switzerland, Christoph Blocher's Swiss People's Party won the general election last year after a campaign condemned as racist by UN monitors. In Poland the League of Polish Families, a member of the coalition government until a year ago, campaigns for the elimination of Jewish influence in business and the professions. The Vlaams Belang in Belgium is strongly anti-immigrant. Even in ultra-liberal Denmark, the nationalist and anti-immigrant Danish People's Party is now the third largest party. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's Party of Freedom is sandwiched in the ruling coalition by the anti-immigrant Northern League and the post-Fascist National Alliance.

Peter Popham

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