The ‘King of Carinthians’

On his home turf, Jörg Haider is mourned like a lost father

News | Maruska Strah | November 2008

A makeshift memorial of the late Jörg Haider at the place of his accident in Klagenfurt (Photo: Maruska Strah)

After the sudden and unexpected death on Oct. 11 of Jörg Haider, the founder and chairman of the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) and the regional governor of Carinthia, in a car accident, Carinthians were devastated.

Huge billboards covered Klagenfurt with slogans like "Kärnten trauert" (Carinthia is grieving) and "Haider, der König der Kärntner" (Haider, King of Carinthians). Candles in front of the Corinthian State House displayed the sadness of the local people who considered the charismatic Haider almost a member of their family. Several Carinthian villagers claimed he visited them in their homes, just to see how they were doing.

The fact that he vehemently opposed foreigner immigration didn´t seem to bother most of the Carinthians, as he was one of their most popular politicians. Though some people were concerned about his right wing politics, particularly in relation to the Slovenian minority living in Carinthia. But they were far outweighed by the admirers. "Haider would probably have gotten even more votes in the next elections," admitted Benjamin Wakounig, the president of the Slovenian Economic Association of Carinthia.

The Association had no contact with Haider, yet benefited from the economic growth that Haider proclaimed was his achievement.

"Haider dominated Carinthia without a doubt," Wakounig insisted. "But whether there has been any significant economic progress in Carinthia so far is not clear; this will only be clear in the long-term. We also don’t know exactly what happened to the money from selling Hypo Bank to Germany, or where from selling Carinthia properties in the past few years went. To the question of whether people were actually doing better under Haider, Wakounig responded that "people have both more worries and more work, and even Haider couldn’t change that."

So why was Haider such a hero to his people? "The media in Carinthia had a huge influence on Haider´s popularity," said Zalka Kuchling, vice president of the Slovenian Community and speaker for the Green Party in Carinthia.

"There wasn’t a single day that Haider was not mentioned in newspapers or on the radio, and journalists made him look good. This [kind of adulation] was never present here before."

In the 2008 parliamentary elections, Haider won almost double the party’s share of votes, with younger voters, 30 years old and younger supporting him the most. "Haider symbolized something for the young that other Austrian politicians didn’t manage to," Kuchling believes, "the message that people can change the world and achieve something. He was the representative of the proverbial little man."

Kuchlingäs own vision differs radically from the deceased Regional Governor, far more colored by a sense of limits.

"Austria is not an important state with a large population of people with strong minds and clear heads; rather it’s a state full of average people; people don’t think critically but follow those who are willing to lead."

So is it the country that provided Haider with a solid base on which to thrive? "Haider could exist only in Austria," agreed Rudi Vouk, member of Liberal Forum in Austria (LIF). "Austria was never willing to face with its history, and all of Haider’s crazy ideas came from the blurred view of National Socialism. In Germany, for example, where people actually had to deal with everything that happened before 1945, a politician like Haider would never have had a chance. Austria, on the other hand, has always seen itself as a victim. Even Haider’s successor Gerhard Dörfler admits that he doesn’t know much about National Socialism, which only shows how ignorant people are here."

"Austrian nationalism is special," Vouk says, "because most Austrians have foreign roots, two or three generations back. However, when those people assimilate with Austrian culture, they become 150% Austrian, and try to forget where they came from. The same thing happens with today’s immigrants. Serbian immigrants especially can identify with politicians such as Heinz Christian Strache (of the far right Freedom Party – FPÖ), because of the very similar way of thinking. "

Any drastic change in Carinthian government will have to wait for the next Regional Assembly Elections to be held in March. Until then, Carinthia will grieve and remember Jörg Haider for his charisma and charm, whatever its political agenda.

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    the vienna review November 2008