BERLIN, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Austria's political scene is in uncertainty after the surprise death of far-right poster boy Joerg Haider.
More than 25,000 people turned out at Haider's memorial service in the city of Klagenfurt on Saturday. His admirers (and that includes many Austrians) saw in him a passionate politician willing to speak the truth. To his critics, Haider, the governor of the state of Carinthia, was a secret neo-Nazi trying to win votes by playing on xenophobic sentiments.
Alfred Gusenbauer, Austria's Social Democrat chancellor and one of Haider's political opponents, probably put it best: He called Haider a man "who could leave no one cold, whether in a positive or a negative sense."
Haider, a charismatic politician, was killed on Oct. 11 in a car accident. As he was trying to pass another car, he lost control of his vehicle, crashing into a mountain wall. Haider died of several severe head and chest injuries, said officials, who later found out that he was driving drunk and speeding significantly.
Haider's surprise death sparked tremendous mourning in Austria. Some compared it to the death of the United Kingdom's Princess Diana, with even his opponents in shock.
The death also comes at the worst time for the country's political development.
Austrians three weeks ago voted in parliamentary elections, handing significant gains to the right-wing parties and losses to the established parties. Coalition talks have since started, yet Haider's death adds further uncertainty to the outcome of those negotiations, observers say.
His right-wing Alliance for Austria's Future (or BZO, a party Haider founded) is now leaderless. Its 27-year-old secretary-general, Stefan Petzner, wept bitterly on live television, likening Haider's death to "the end of the world."
The BZO had placed fourth in the country's national elections, nearly tripling its voter backing to 11 percent compared with the vote two years ago.
The more radical Freedom Party, which Haider had led to prominence and a share in government in 2000 before leaving it, also won greater backing.
In turn, the two major Austrian political forces, the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People's Party, which have governed the country in a grand coalition, suffered significant losses.
The election came after the coalition collapsed because of repeated internal differences after only 18 months in office. Voters turned to Haider's right to express their frustration with the established parties.
Analysts are divided as to what Haider's death will mean for coalition talks.
Some say the mourning will bring Austria's right-wing parties together, while others say the major parties will try to prevent just that by quickly laying aside their own differences.
Austria's right will need to find a new leader capable of shining on a national and international stage. Haider, while always a controversial figure, was able to do just that.
The son of two Nazi sympathizers, Haider outraged people early in his career after praising Adolf Hitler's employment policy and the brutal Nazi Waffen-SS as a group of soldiers deserving "honor and recognition." Haider has always denied being an extremist or a neo-Nazi, however.
Later in his career, Haider increased the support for the Freedom Party by six times with populist campaigns focused on anti-immigrant and anti-European Union programs.
In 1999 the Freedom Party under Haider was at its highest point, winning 27 percent of the vote and a share in a controversial government coalition that brought Austria months of international isolation and sanctions.
Haider a year later quit the Freedom Party to focus on his role as state governor in Carinthia; in 2005 he launched the Alliance for Austria's Future, a more moderate right-wing party that began with minimal support before winning an impressive 11 percent in elections last month.
Haider has completely shaken up Austria's political scene by ending the decades-long dominance of two parties and establishing a functioning right in Austria. Whether that right can survive without its leader has to be seen.
Gerhard Doerfler, Haider's deputy and now the acting governor of Carinthia, is not so sure. He said, "The sun has fallen from the sky." That's a statement Haider would have liked.
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