International Papers

What a Putsch!

Austria’s coalition government collapsed earlier this week after Jörg Haider organized a putsch against moderate members of his own party. According to the Irish Times, he used a disagreement over the government’s decision to delay a planned tax cut in order to fund relief efforts from the recent devastating floods “to put terminal pressure on the coalition.” Haider, known for his pro-Nazi, anti-immigration pronouncements, resigned as the Freedom Party’s leader in February 2000, after his presence in the government made Austria a pariah state. He stayed in politics, governing the southern province of Carinthia, while more pragmatic members of his party served in the coalition. The Irish Times reported that a “clear split emerged between the parliamentary wing of the party, becoming more comfortable with power and keen to hold onto it, and the far right ranks responding to Dr. Haider’s populist message.”

Last weekend he organized an extraordinary party conference and presented party chairman, Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, with what was essentially a humiliating vote of no-confidence. When Riess-Passer and her supporters resigned, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel dissolved the coalition rather than work with Freedom Party hard-liners and announced that elections would be held a year earlier than expected, probably on Nov. 24. On Wednesday, the party reinstated Haider, who recently visited Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, as leader, although for “tactical reasons” Herbert Haupt will be the official “leading candidate.”

Britain’s Independent said that Haider’s machinations showed him “doing what he does best: throwing his country’s politics into turmoil.” Der Kurier of Vienna noted that Haider had achieved the “extremely rare if not unique coup of deposing both his predecessor and his successor. … For Jörg Haider, politics in general and his party in particular, are, above all, an ego trip.” (German translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Several commentators noted that dissident parties are generally more comfortable in opposition; indeed the Independent went so far as to suggest that “[a]round Europe there is growing evidence that admitting the mavericks and far-right parties into a coalition can be the least worst option.” Judging from the examples of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Italy, proximity to power provokes disputes between purists and pragmatists, whereas far right parties excluded from power, as in Belgium and France, have tended to prosper. Spain’s El País observed, “It’s one thing to be in power and another to yell populist slogans from the corner.”

Although the Freedom Party is expected to have less much power in the next parliament, commentators expect Haider will use the election campaign to foment opposition to the European Union, especially to the Czech Republic’s accession. The Financial Times predicted, “Mr Haider will now clearly try to revive his party’s poll ratings by stepping up his campaign against EU enlargement. This inevitably carries some fears for Austrians, who have four applicant countries on their borders. But they should resist his fear-mongering. If they do, Austria would be set to ratify enlargement next year.”

Update Sept. 14: According to the BBC, Haider surprised observers by turning down the Freedom Party leadership: “He said the party wouldn’t accept the policies he wanted to introduce, and that the Freedom Party ministers now had the possibility of imposing their line on the party.”