Joerg Haider, who catapulted his party into a powerful force in Austrian politics with a mix of folksy aphorisms, in-your-face attacks on rivals and provocative praise of the Nazi era, died Saturday in a car accident. He was 58.
His death on a little-traveled stretch of southern Austrian highway left Austria without the politician best-known outside the country – although the governor of Carinthia province never held a post in the national government.
Alone at the wheel, Haider was overtaking another motorist when his car veered off the road, crashing into a concrete pillar and overturning. He died of multiple injuries. Authorities said an initial investigation showed no signs of foul play.
Although he was commonly labeled a rightist, Haider was more a populist who defied categorization, often swiftly embracing positions at odds with his early reputation as an admirer of Nazi times and a hater of foreigners.
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Often at odds with the telegenic Haider, politicians from across the ideological spectrum expressed shock at his death.
Austrian President Heinz Fischer described it a “human tragedy.” Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer expressed his condolences to Haider's family and said he had shaped Austria's domestic political landscape over decades.
Haider achieved notoriety for past remarks that sounded sympathetic to the Nazis and contemptuous of Jews, a visit with Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war and a friendship with Moammar Gadhafi when Libya was still an international pariah.
He praised a member of Hitler's Waffen SS convicted of eradicating the population of an Italy village as someone “who (only) did his duty.” He lauded Nazis as creating “a good policy of employment.” He condemned the “laziness of the Southerners” – meaning immigrants south of Austria, describing their countries as “the place of criminality and corruption.”
And in a mocking reference to the first name of Vienna's Jewish leader, which is also that of a popular detergent, Haider said: “I don't understand how someone called Ariel can have so much dirt on his hands.”
But later in his political life, he also endorsed European Union membership for Turkey — out of line with most Austrians. He apologized for some comments hateful of Jews and contemptuous of foreigners and stopped making others.
His indirect comparison of President Bush to Saddam and Hitler in 2003 outraged many members of Austria's political establishment while stirring consternation abroad. The year before, the U.S. State Department, which normally takes scant public notice of tiny Austria, linked Haider to electioneering comments that “could be interpreted as xenophobic or anti-Semitic.”
Such sentiments, and his Freedom Party's anti-foreigner stance, played well with Austrians critical of America, unrepentant about their country's role in Nazi atrocities and fearful of the growing influx of Islam and other outside cultures.
When Haider took over the party, it was a staid middle-of-the-road fringe organization polling below 10 percent nationally. By 2000, it was the No. 2 force in the country, capturing 27 percent of the vote and powered by Haider's sharp attacks on traditional political rivals and his bursts of xenophobia and immigrant-bashing.
His party subsequently formed Austria's government in coalition with the centrist People's Party, prompting Israel to recall its ambassador in protest and the EU to impose unprecedented sanctions on a fellow member nation.
But for Haider, the balloon burst five years later – his party split, and his faction sank nearly into inconsequence as the extreme radical wing of the party blossomed in popularity.
That trend was moderated this year after Haider took an active role in the fortunes of his splinter faction, renamed Alliance for the Future of Austria. The party took nearly 11 percent of the vote last month, up from just over 4 percent in the last election.