Debate on Austrian politician sparks controversy at lecture

Robert Koch

Whether they consider him a dangerous right-wing demagogue, a simple populist or part of an evolving political system, guests attending Wednesday’s discussion agreed that Austrian politician Joerg Haider merits serious debate and not just rhetoric.
Haider and the rise of his right-wing Freedom Party prompted about 100 people to attend Wednesday’s lecture, titled “Austria and the Haider Phenomenon: Democracy, National Identity and the European Union,” at the Humphrey Center.
The inclusion of Haider’s Freedom Party on Feb. 4 in Austria’s new coalition government — after taking 27 percent of the vote in last year’s election — prompted the European Union to impose sanctions on and sever diplomatic ties with Austria.
Austria, a wealthy European nation with more than 8 million inhabitants, has many international ties. The University of Minnesota hosts student-exchange programs with the universities of Graz and Salzburg.
Professors from various departments voiced their opinions at the event, sponsored by the Center for Austrian Studies.
Austrian-born Helga Leitner, professor of geography, watched the rise of Haider and his Freedom Party in the 1980s.
Haider became governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia after campaigning to curb immigration. The The 50-year-old politician remains controversial for once having praised Hitler’s employment policies as orderly and lauding Waffen SS veterans as honorable men — remarks for which he has since apologized.
“He created the anti-foreigner discourse,” Leitner said.
But whether sanctions are an appropriate response to a democratically elected government is debatable.
Eric Weitz, a University political science associate professor, defended the sanctions. They do not violate national sovereignty but exert pressure on Austria to conform to EU standards, he said.
Although yesterday’s speakers disagreed about the threat posed by Haider, most traced the rise of his party to the post-war era, when Austria adopted a power-sharing government, in which labor and capital interests sought consensus.
David Good, a University political science professor, said this consensus-politics evolved into a ‘religion.’ Only during the 1980s did the system falter and groups like the Green and the Freedom parties emerge.
Good said Austria’s new system might be unpredictable, but added that the level of political discourse has been raised. This might lead to a normalization of Austrian politics and eventually the marginalization of Haider, he said.
An interactive teleconference between the University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison about Austria and Haider is scheduled for Feb. 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Rarig Center on the West Bank.