Haider’s rise and fall

The strong showing in Austria three years ago by the polarizing nationalist Joerg Haider sent shock waves throughout Europe, sounding an anti-fascist alert across the continent. One would have thought that the relatively disastrous showing by Haider’s Freedom Party in Sunday’s elections would have triggered analogous reactions: That the anxiety and fear about the rise of far-right extremism would have given way to relief and celebrations of democracy’s triumph over fascism. Haider’s extreme-right party took a beating at the polls, but the news got less than a tenth of the publicity garnered by Haider’s 1999 performance. What is behind this disproportionate response by the EU governments and public? It seems most plausible that the concerns were inflated and ungrounded. Haider couldn’t have threatened Austria’s democracy – even less, European democracy. The ultra-nationalist parties of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, Gianfranco Fini in Italy, and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France have all followed the same downhill course. Past traumas, of course, trigger a strong reflex against extreme rightist phenomena. However, the conditions that prevailed in Europe in the interwar period and allowed fascism to flourish are now absent. The modern far-right movement does not have the same ideological platform in all countries. What we are facing, rather, are parties which express circumstantial disaffection, negation and protest – the reverse of a vote of confidence, so to speak. This is why when these parties do ride to power under government coalitions, they make a mockery of themselves before they crumble. The political charlatanism of modern ultra-nationalist parties only survives because of an irresponsible attitude by a section of the electorate who cast no-votes. Popular sovereignty elected Haider with 27 percent three years ago. On Sunday, it punished him with a meager 10 percent.

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