VIENNA — Joerg Haider, the telegenic rising star of Austrian right-wing politics, was touring Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center when he spotted his own picture on the wall--alongside the likes of Idi Amin and David Duke.
He was outraged.
Haider called on a fellow Austrian, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to use his influence to get the picture removed, but to no avail. The photograph remained, and Haider lost this skirmish in his battle to change his image abroad as he climbs to power at home.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 16, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Waldheim record--A story in Thursday's editions of The Times misstated the military record of Kurt Waldheim. The former Austrian president was not a member of the SS but did serve with a Nazi army intelligence unit that was involved in atrocities in the Balkans.
Best known for pro-Nazi statements that he now says were misconstrued and exaggerated, the populist Haider has in just a few years taken his far-right Austrian Freedom Party from extremist obscurity to second place in opinion polls--rivaling the two mainstream parties that have dominated Austrian politics since World War II. And he is setting his sights on becoming the next chancellor of this Alpine nation.
Haider is Europe's most successful far-right politician. His party is the largest such group on the Continent. It holds 42 seats in the 183-member National Council, nearly four times the number the party held when Haider assumed control in 1986.
The key to his success, analysts say, is his charismatic ability to exploit the region's hot-button issues at a time of widespread economic uncertainty. He rails against the government's traditional patronage system and challenges the status quo politics of the ruling elite.
"Step by step, we are increasing our support," Haider, 47, said in an interview at one of his offices, behind the ornate neoclassical parliament building. "People are a little bit afraid of the future. They do not believe the promises of their government."
His political message is staunchly nationalistic and anti-establishment. It questions Austria's membership in the European Union and favors the reversal of Austria's historically liberal immigration policies. Human rights advocates blame his politics for stirring a new wave of racist xenophobia.
Judging from his party rhetoric, Haider admires the U.S. anti-immigrant backlash that started in California. A huge California state flag (he says the bear reminds him of his home district, Baerental, or Bear Valley) and pictures of himself posing with American immigration agents on the U.S.-Mexico border adorn his Vienna office.
If the United States and Mexico, two large democratic countries, are forced to erect fences to prevent illegal immigration, he argued, then surely Austria is justified in taking precautions to limit new arrivals.
Haider, like many Austrians the son of Nazi party members, first attracted international attention when he praised the forced-labor policies of Hitler's Nazi Germany. The Nazis, he said in 1991, "had a sound employment policy in the Third Reich." That caused him to lose his job as governor of Carinthia province. In 1995, he lauded a group of former SS officers as "decent people." And in a speech to fellow parliament members that same year, he referred to Auschwitz as a straflager, or "punishment camp"--a mild label, many people thought, for the Nazi facility that put millions of Jews to death.
A Gallup Poll conducted in 1995 for the New York-based American Jewish Council found that 17% of Haider's supporters believed it possible that Nazi extermination camps never existed.
Austria is particularly sensitive to Nazi ghosts, given its history of collaboration with the Third Reich. Austrians are only slowly coming to terms with that past and were embarrassed when their president in the 1980s, Kurt Waldheim, was exposed as a former SS officer who served in a Balkan region where atrocities were committed.
When Haider's party took nearly 28% of the vote in national elections for the European Parliament last year, many people were alarmed. Newspapers in Europe compared the showing to the 1932 performance of the Nazi Party shortly before Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
But Haider is not another Hitler. Although the Austrian Freedom Party was founded by former Nazis and for years espoused a brand of Pan-Germanic nationalism, much of its support today is not pro-Nazi but anti-government, with foreigners made the scapegoats for economic woes and rising crime.
And several Austrian analysts believe that it is still unlikely that Haider could become chancellor in elections scheduled for 1999 without support from other large political parties that, for now, consider him anathema.
The greater danger, analysts say, is his ability to drive the national agenda, polarize the population and push domestic politics to the right and inward. "I am your patron saint against further immigration," Haider told supporters during campaign appearances. He has urged foreigners to go home, and earlier this year he supported rules denying public building contracts to firms that employed foreigners.