Austrian far-right politician Haider dies in car accident

12th October 2008, Comments 0 comments

He was remembered as a skillful and charismatic politician but also as a divisive figure.

Vienna -- Joerg Haider, the leader of Austria's right-wing Alliance for the Future of Austria, died in a car accident early Saturday, according to police officials.

From the time Haider took over the Freedom Party in 1986 until his recent election success with the split-off Alliance in late September, he was responsible for the rise of Austria's right-wing parties.

The Freedom Party and Alliance together received a total of 28 percent of the ballots in the parliamentary elections on Sept. 28.

Austrian officials on Saturday remembered Haider as a skillful and charismatic politician but also as a divisive figure.

The accident occurred near Klagenfurt, capital of Carinthia, at 1:15 a.m. local time, the town's police chief Ernst Friessnegger said in a press conference in Klagenfurt.

Haider was driving alone when his car veered off the road after passing another vehicle. It then hit several obstacles, including a concrete foundation of a fence, and flipped over several times.

The politician died on the way to a local hospital from serious injuries to the head, neck and chest, according to Thomas Koperna, medical chief of the Klagenfurt hospital. His left arm was almost severed, he said.

"The doctors in the province hospital could only pronounce the governor's death," Koperna said.

Police are still investigating the exact cause of the accident, in which no one else was injured.

According to the Alliance's deputy leader, Stefan Petzner, Haider was driving from an event in Velden to his home in Feistritz, about 30 kilometers from Klagenfurt.

"For us, this is like the end of the world," Petzner said. "He was a politician who moved and changed Austria."

Other Austrian political and religious leaders expressed shock over Haider's death but many pointed to the divisive nature of his politics. Haider had been a "politician of great talent," who had sparked enthusiasm as well as criticism, said Austrian President Heinz Fischer.

Haider turned Austria's small right-wing movement into a force to be reckoned with by often denigrating political opponents and by tapping into revisionist and anti-immigrant sentiments.

In 1991, he had to step down as governor of Carinthia after saying that the Third Reich under Hitler had a "proper employment policy." Nazi Germany had enslaved Jews and foreigners for its wartime economy.

Haider was reelected as governor in 1999.

Conservative leader Josef Proell said Haider had brought a new style to Austrian politics that had been "very successful."

He was referring to 11 percent of the votes, which the Alliance won in September, nearly doubling its total over the previous elections in 2006.

Haider's party split from the Freedom Party in 2005.

In 2000, Haider led the Freedom Party into a government coalition as a junior partner of the conservative People's Party. When the Alliance was formed in 2005, its officials took over the Freedom Party's seats in cabinet until the coalition broke down in 2006.

The 2000 center-right coalition, in which Haider was not a cabinet member, was met with diplomatic sanctions by members of the European Union.

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, Haider's right-wing political rival, said Saturday that Haider was responsible for "incredible changes" in Austria, which for years had been dominated by Social Democrats and mainstream conservatives.

Filip Dewinter, a leader of Belgium's right-wing, anti-foreigner Flemish party Vlaams Belang, praised Haider on Saturday as a "model of a modern, current successful right-nationalist politician," who had given voice to the "silent majority of the population."

In his last interview published by the regional Kleine Zeitung on Saturday, Haider indicated he no longer had ambitions to lead the country.

"We changed a lot in Carinthia and we will go on doing so in Austria," he said. "I don't have to become chancellor to do that."

Haider leaves behind his wife and two adult daughters, as well as his mother, whose 90th birthday the family had planned to celebrate on Saturday.

-- Albert Otti /DPA/Expatica

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