Thousands clashed with riot police outside the Hofburg presidential palace February 4 during the official swearing-in ceremony, and marchers blew whistles, banged on pans, and shouted "Haider is a fascist!" They held placards reading, "Haider's Austria is not my Austria." Some 15,000 people held a protest two nights earlier in Vienna during negotiations to form the coalition.
The entry of Haider's party into government was greeted by a storm of protest from European imperialist governments and from Washington. Many politicians and reports in the big business media portray the new government as an aberration. Leftist groups went so far as to hold rallies demanding their imperialist governments enact sanctions against Austria.
Haider has taken advantage of this response to paint himself as a defender of democracy and the Austrian people.
Two days after his party was sworn into government, Haider answered the attacks by demanding that Germans expelled from Czech territory at the end of WWII receive the same compensation as Jews in Austria who were persecuted by the Nazis.
Far from being a freak occurrence, the events in Austria highlight the fact that ultrarightist and fascist forces are a permanent feature of bourgeois politics that working people confront in every imperialist country today. This is not the first time in recent history that fascist forces have been in a government coalition in Europe. In 1994 in Italy, a government headed by Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia governed in alliance with the fascist National Alliance and rightist Northern League.
The People's Party turned to Haider after failing to form a government with the Social Democratic party. Three months of talks between the two parties, which have ruled Austria for 55 years—often in coalition—collapsed after "the Social Democrats' union members refused to back the measures to resolve Austria's deepening budget crisis," according to the Financial Times. The Social Democrats came in first in last October's general elections with 33.4 percent of the vote. The Freedom Party polled 27.2 percent, coming in a narrow second over the People's Party.
The other 14 members of the European Union (EU) immediately imposed a ban on bilateral meetings with Austrian ministers. Israel recalled its ambassador to Vienna before the coalition was sworn in. Washington announced it would limit its contacts with the new government and recalled its envoy from Vienna for temporary consultations. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright criticized a "party that does not clearly distance itself from the atrocities of the Nazi era and the politics of hate." She said the ambassador would return the following weekend.
The new chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of the People's Party stated, as reported in the February 10 New York Times, that Austria is a "stable democracy [with] very few anti-foreigner incidents, labor strikes or violent demonstrations."
Attacks on the Austrian government ranged from a statement by the Belgian foreign minister that Europe could do without Austria, to papers such as the New York Times casting collective guilt on the people of the country. After reminding readers Adolph Hitler was an Austrian, the Times quoted a Frenchwoman. "'Austria is le ventre de la bête,' literally, the womb of the beast," the paper reported.
The new government received a friendlier response from Patrick Buchanan, the prospective candidate for the Reform Party in this year's U.S. presidential elections. Buchanan's "America First" rhetoric parallels the nationalism of Haider. "I do not see any threat to Europe or the world or anywhere from Mr. Haider or that coalition government sitting in Vienna," said Buchanan on February 8. The outrage over the new government, he said, "is an indication, I think, that any candidate of the right can expect universal hostilities."
The Freedom Party's predecessor was founded by supporters of the Nazi regime of the German National Socialist Party—the Nazi Party—that governed Austria in WWII. Haider's parents were Nazi party members, and his rise to leadership of the party is peppered with statements that prettify the national socialist regime. In 1991 Haider stated, "In the Third Reich they had an 'orderly' employment policy." During a 1995 parliamentary debate Haider dubbed the Nazi concentration camps the "punishment camps of National Socialism."
After last year's general election, Haider apologized for these and other similar remarks. On the insistence of Austrian president Thomas Klestil, Schüssel and Haider signed a lengthy declaration which pledged their allegiance to "the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of the peoples of Europe, and stated that the government would work "for an Austria in which xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism have no place."
Haider said shortly afterwards that the document was "an affront to the Austrian people" and that he would not travel around the world apologizing for the Holocaust. Haider himself will not participate in the new coalition, but will continue his term as the head of government in the state of Carinthia, a post he won in March 1999 with 42 percent of the vote.
The Freedom Party's rightist politics are not confined to historical questions. Haider has built his reputation by scapegoating immigrants. "We don't need any immigration—we instead have to concentrate on integrating the foreigners who already are in Austria," he declared after the formation of the new government. Last year, the Freedom Party campaigned against the enlargement of the European Union, stating that a flood of immigrants would follow, threatening the jobs of Austrian citizens. At the same time, Haider calls for Austria to join the NATO military alliance and favors its expansion into Eastern Europe. He targets the Austrian political establishment as corrupt.
Neither immigration nor unemployment in Austria are especially high by European standards. The current unemployment rate is 4.3 percent in an expanding economy, and the previous Social Democratic government restricted immigration to close to zero.
These political themes and rightist formations that voice them can be seen in many European countries today. This explains the reaction against the new government in Bonn, Paris, and other European capitals. Support for the punitive measures comes most strongly from the governments in France and Belgium, where similar ultrarightist political parties have gained a large following: in France, Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front, and in Belgium Vlaams Block.
In fact in France, President Jacques Chirac had to go on an intensive campaign in 1998 in response to politicians from his party forming an electoral alliance with the National Front in five regions.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was cited in the Washington Post as fearing that the Austrian events would upset Germany, where the conservative Christian Democratic party is being torn apart by a financial scandal. Schroeder feared, wrote the Post, that "a political vacuum could develop that might encourage the appearance of a Haider-like figure in Germany who would seek to exploit resentment toward immigrants and dismay with the course of European integration."
Among the central European countries opting to join the European Union, there was cautious and hesitant reactions to both the new government in Austria and the EU measures. Several border Austria, and some like Slovakia are major trading partners with this imperialist power.
The traditional ruling parties of European capitalism are threatened by these newer formations, which build a following among middle class layers and some better-off workers. They seize the themes advanced by the major parties and take them to their logical conclusion. These themes include extreme nationalism, scapegoating of layers in society, and demagogic appeals to provide moral values and good government for society.
In face of the attacks on the new coalition government, Haider has portrayed his Freedom Party as a defender of democracy and a responsible capitalist party. He castigated "leftists who do not accept democratic decisions" of the government for violence in the capital and said that if other parties in the country bowed to outside pressure "then we might as well abolish democracy in this country straight away."
Brushing aside the threat of diplomatic isolation, Haider said the European Union "will quickly get used to the fact that the Freedom Party now sits in the Cabinet, which has good programs, expertise and good manners."
At the same time, he lashed out at the sanctions, calling French president Jacques Chirac "a megalomaniac, a hypocrite and a loser.... There is a lot of excitement in the European chicken house—even though the fox has not even got in," he said.
"Despite all attempts from the outside and despite the terror of the street," he crowed, "we have succeeded in forming a government that is a real shift in power - it is a historic day for Austria."
Both President Thomas Klestil and former Social Democratic chancellor Viktor Klima should be investigated by a commission on grounds of high treason, said Haider on February 6. "They have to be able to prove that they have not committed some form of political high treason against Austria and foreign leading figures should be called as witnesses," he said.
This is the kind of demagogy that Haider will use to build up his party's following, and it will increase political polarization in Austria and all over Europe.
Carl-Erik Isacsson is a member of the Metalworkers Union in Södertälje Sweden.
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