The ‘System Haider’ Implodes

Corruption scandals and political shambles in Austria’s province Carinthia

Neuer Zürcher zeitung

The ‘System Haider’ Implodes

by Charles Ritterband

Charles RitterbandHeads are rolling in Carinthia. The local head of the Austrian People’s Party, Josef Martinz, as well as the head of the Carinthian governing party FPK (Freiheitliche in Kärnten), Uwe Scheuch, were forced to resign in quick succession as a consequence of recently unveiled party donation scandals worth millions of Euros. Thus, more than half of the Carinthian members of government are either under investigation or have in fact made full confessions. Former Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, once a political star and future hope, is now the most prominent and also the most controversial ex-politician, and the focus of the public prosecution – who came all the way from Carinthia to Vienna. He was also a member of Jörg Haider’s intimate political circle. But was it just the “System Haider” that made Carinthia particularly prone to corruption?

 

Dismantled and exposed

When Jörg Haider died in the early hours of 11 October 2008 in a car accident at Lambichl, near Klagenfurt – speeding  at 142 km/h with 1.8‰ alcohol in his blood before going off the road – a shockwave hit the country. The impassioned outcry that the sun “has fallen from the sky” is all that remains in the collective mind, after the death of the 58-year-old Carinthian governor.

The words of his successor, Gerhard Dörfler, in memory of the deceased – “We will look after your Carinthia” – seem retrospectively a mockery, as does Haider’s catchy campaign slogan: “Er hat euch nicht belogen! Einfach ehrlich, einfach Jörg” (“He has not betrayed you! Simply honest, simply Jörg”).

Jörg Haider was, at least since the infamous Federal President Kurt Waldheim, the most controversial figure on Austria’s political stage. Yet in Carinthia he was worshipped like a saint by many, and since his accidental death, like a martyr. The head of Carinthia’s Green Party, Rolf Holub, is a lone fighter at the forefront of uncovering Carinthia’s corruption scandals. He described the feelings Haider provoked in people and Austrian politicians alike as a mixture of blind allegiance and gratitude on one side, but fear on the other.

However, it is evident that his imprudent yet well-constructed “System Haider” has recently imploded. The great benefactor and formidable politician was unmasked as its ruthless mastermind. In a recent poll conducted in the southern province, only 38% of the respondents described the era under Haider as a “good time” for Carinthia – 53% stated the opposite. Political commentators claim that if Haider were alive today, he would most probably face several years’ imprisonment.

 

Inaugurating a new era

Carinthia is heading for a radical political change – this can be predicted with a degree of certainty. Jörg Haider delivered the greatest election result for his BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria) after his death, so to speak: The party gained almost 45% of the popular vote at the Provincial Elections in 2009. The election provided the Carinthian BZÖ successor FPK with almost unlimited power, which allowed its proponents – at least, until recently – to act on, and sometimes cross the border of legality.

However, since the corruption scandals unfolded, the tables have turned for the FPK, who have so far ruled in autocratic arrogance. The SPÖ are now the favourite to win and could take control again, just like 23 years ago, as opinion polls predict a result of 34 to 36% for the Carinthian Social Democrats. Nevertheless, the true winners of the upcoming provincial elections might in fact be the Greens, the only political party not tangled up in any corruption scandals; and whose most prominent representative, Rolf Holub, made a name for himself as their frontman and fearless exposer of corruption. A red-green coalition, just like its successful counterpart in the capital Vienna, is also within reach in Carinthia.

So far, the FPK is defending itself against snap elections – at least against an early election date, demanded by the other political parties – as it fears for its own survival. Nevertheless, the course of events is unstoppable: The implosion of the “System Haider” could lead to a new start in Carinthia, carried forward  by a disillusioned electorate.

 

Born in Zurich in 1952, Dr. Charles Ritterband has worked as a correspondent and editor at Neue Züricher Zeitung (NZZ) for the past 28 years. Since 2001, he has been based in Vienna as the paper’s correspondent for Austria and Hungary.

Translated by Matthias Wurz

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