"This will light a fire under those fat cats in Vienna," one Austrian voter told a pollster when explaining why he'd decided to vote for Jörg Haider, the Austrian pop fascist whose party will soon have eight of the 16 key posts in Austria's new government. Disillusion with the Viennese fat cats, the "grand coalition" which has ruled Austria for 50 years, explains why 27% of voters in one of Europe's richest countries have taken a sharp turn to the right. These voters are fed up with the cronyism which allowed the social democrat and conservative parties to hand out jobs in every sector from state-owned television to kindergartens and hospitals. A vote for Haider was a vote against cronyism, corruption, European politics as usual.Of course Haider isn't interested in solutions. He just wants to exploit problems. Still, his success shows what happens when a political system gets corrupted, when a governing elite loses touch with voters. Austria isn't the only place where a corrupt cold war era coalition regime is coming apart. In Germany, Helmut Kohl's astounding fall, like the collapse of some giant oak, reveals the rotten root structure underneath: the cronyism and corruption which sustained cdu dominance for 16 years. Haider's success has worrying implications for Germany and Italy, too. If Christian Democracy falls apart, the beneficiaries will be political outsiders like Haider, the opportunists of the extreme right.
If right-wing populism is a revolt of the masses--even well-fed ones--against corrupt, self-serving political elites, then the rest of Europe's reaction--threats of boycotts and excommunication--may only make the problem worse. Already international pressure is raising rather than lowering Haider's standing in the polls. The President of Austria has been forced to accept a coalition with Haider's party in a junior position rather than risk calling new elections where Haider could win a plurality.
Europe's condemnation of Austria is gesture politics and its leaders' lectures about European values display a nauseating bad faith. France, which has a deeply anchored right-wing party committed to repatriation of immigrants, pompously proclaims it won't do business with a government committed to tight immigration controls. Countries that closed their doors to refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo feel entitled to lecture a small country which since the Hungarian uprising of 1956 has taken more than its share of refugees from eastern and southern Europe. Instead of sermons to the Austrians, European leaders ought to try a little straight talk to their own people. What British, Italian, German or French politician has dared tell voters, for example, how much America's economic success owes to its open-door immigration policies? Until it starts fighting its own chauvinism, Fortress Europe has no moral right to lecture Fortress Austria.
Tarring the whole of the Austrian public with the Haider brush is also unfair. Thousands of people had to take to the streets of Vienna last week to remind us, by holding up signs--in English--that 73% of the population didn't vote for right-wing extremism.
Ignorant historical analogies are also clouding outsiders' judgment. February 2000 isn't March 1938, and Haider isn't Hitler. He is a democratic populist who cultivates outrage abroad to build a political base at home. It's time to stop dignifying this man's low games with responses which only increase his power base. Only Austrians can fix the disturbing mixture of historical amnesia and self-pity which still makes it possible for Haider to make his calculated "slips of the tongue" about concentration camps.
The same political culture of lies allows Austrians of a certain age to claim that their little country was Hitler's first victim, or even worse, that Austrians who served in the Waffen SS were only doing their duty. Haider's own parents came from this swamp, and it's time for Austrians to drain it. But it won't be done at the behest of foreign political correctness. Only a truth about their past which Austrians author themselves, in their own language, will carry any conviction in provincial Carinthia.
In the l980s, when outsiders condemned Austrian President Kurt Waldheim for lying about his Nazi past, it did nothing to help Austrians face up to their past. Condemning a whole people today for the tavern musings of one of its right-wing populists will simply exacerbate the very victimhood and self-pity that populists feed on in the first place.
Europe has no business telling Austrians whom they should vote for, and no business imposing sanctions before the government has had a day in office. But once in office, a Haider government is obliged, by its membership in the Community, to obey European rules. If a Haider government deports people illegally, if it abridges human rights, Europe has the right to intervene. But that is in the future. Right now, we should stop lecturing the Austrian people and start putting our faith in the 73% of the population who didn't vote for him and don't want to travel the low road.