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13/03/2009

Haider in their hearts

Jörg Haider has just won the elections in the state of Carinthia. Eva Menasse looks closer at this disgrace to democracy.

An image from Villach's carnival, which Austria's Carinthians are as proud of as the people of Cologne are of their own: Gerhard Dörfler, head of the provincial government, sucks at the dark brown fabric breasts of a joker dressed as a - let's put it in Dörfler's vocabulary - "negro mama."

Since becoming the successor to Jörg Haider after the governor's fatal accident in October, Dörfler has won attention beyond Carinthia's borders for one thing, above all. In the presence of his friend, Afro-Cuban schmalz-pop singer Roberto Blanco, he told a joke about two breast-feeding mothers, one black, one white. The white baby lets go of its mother's breast and says, "Mummy, I want cocoa, too." Of course this ruffled feathers, especially in distant Vienna; Roberto Blanco affirmed that he didn't feel insulted, and Dörfler said he wouldn't ban humor. With his carnival appearance in a garbage man costume, whose orange is also the colour of his party - the right-wing splinter group BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria) - he once again confirmed who's setting the standards for taste in Austria's southernmost state.

Last Sunday, this Dörfler, who has neither the looks nor the brains of his charismatic predecessor Haider, was elected to office with an overwhelming 45 percent. And with that, all opinion polls were rendered obsolete; no one had believed Dörfler could do it. Or rather: No one had thought the Carinthians capable of granting a governing majority to a dead man. Because that is what the BZÖ did, in a manner as simple as it was outrageous: they waged a dead man's campaign. It wasn't just that Haider's political executor campaigned as "BZÖ - Jörg Haider's Slate"; it wasn't just that their slogan all too clearly linked itself to Haider's autocratic, paternalistic understanding of poltics, which the Vienna Falter aptly described as "agrarian socialism with a nationalist face." And it wasn't just that Haider's widow Claudia fought hard in the election and almost made people forget that Haider's significant other for the last six years was named Stefan Petzner. No, in order to make it clear to every last granny that one can still vote for "ol' Jörgl", BZÖ helpers turned out in Klagenfurt a few days before election day with boxes full of memorial candles. The sea of candles from Haider's death on 11 October was simply reconstructed - the day "when, in Carinthia, the sun fell from the sky," as Gerhard Dörfler put it back then.

From a distance, it may look like some bizarre, provincial hullabaloo - the somehow poignant death cult and the embarrassing jokes too intellectually inferior to merit the term 'racist'. But in truth, Carinthia is the almost completed experiment in the regional annulment of democracy - as we in Europe understand it. Yes, Carinthia, this blessedly lovely land with its mountains and lakes, its congenial people and delicious dumplings, so loved by German families as a holiday destination, is on the ropes - ethically, morally, and politically. It's been dumbed-down to death by the infernal genius of Jörg Haider and by the dwarves who call themselves his heirs and successors.

Among the articles of evidence for this: No Carinthian journalist could write such sentences without putting life and limb in jeopardy. The Viennese political cabaret stars Stermann & Grissemann had to cancel their Carinthian appearance in the fall after parodying the Haider death cult on TV; the death threats were clearly underscored with the discovery of loosened bolts on the car of their Carinthian promoter. All of a sudden, they lose their sense of humour, those Carinthians.

But how did it come to this? Why do almost half the voters believe in a xenophobic, highly aggressive party with an almost religious expectation of salvation? And where is the "other Carinthia"?

As always, one has to look to history. A poor, deeply rural borderland with a mixed population, German and Slavic since the mass migration. What was no problem during the monarchy became a big one after its decline. At the end of the First World War, troops from what would become Yugoslavia occupied parts of lower Carinthia. A couple of bloody Carinthian skirmishes are still glorified as a "defensive battle" today, although in the end it was the victorious powers that brought back the peace - and arranged a referendum in which the Carinthian Slovenes spoke out for remaining part of Austria. For which they receive paltry thanks to this day.

At the end of the Second World War, Yugoslav partisans avenged themselves with looting, murders, abductions. Such things remain deep in the collective memory. Afterwards, Carinthia sank into oblivion again, a poor southern region - for holidays, if need be. For fourteen years, it was governed by the autocratic Leopold Wagner (SPÖ), who gladly admitted to being "a high-ranking member of the Hitler Youth." This king of proportional representation was Haider's political godfather.

In 1972, Federal Chancellor Kreisky wanted to have bilingual street signs erected in multilingual towns, a minority right stipulated in the State Treaty of 1955. The result was a popular uprising and, in the end, he submitted. "Defensive battle" and "steet sign tempest", farmers' pride and obstinacy, inferiority complexes and contempt from outsiders - this was a soil fertile for someone like Haider.

Like a Roman patrician, he simply bought the Carinthians. He was everywhere, at every marketplace, at every festival - he probably shook the hand of every Carinthian. He tore through the land and distributed checks for education, fuel, heating. He sold off public property. It's apparently of no concern to the people that Carinthia now has the highest debt of all the Austrian provinces.

Haider presented himself to the sensitive Carinthian soul as an avenging knight. With bluster, he raged repeatedly against "the lofty gentlemen in Vienna". He explicitly flouted court decisions, whether they pertained to treatment of refugees or to street signs. The Sun and the Law: He was both.

Jörg Haider took down Slovenian street signs with his own hands. In violation of the law, he expelled refugees, including women and children, in the dark of night. A few days before he died drunk at the
wheel, he had opened a "special facility" at an altitude of 1,200 meters in the Saualm in order to "concentrate criminal asylum applicants". And then noncriminal but sick asylum applicants were also "concentrated" there. "Carinthia will be free of Chechens," promised his party's advertisements.

The tone he struck is still resonating, and powerfully. That's how a dead Haider can still win an election. "Better to have an innocent asylum-seeker on the Saualm than vice versa", declared BZÖ head Uwe Scheuch recently.

Carinthia is a disgrace to democratic politics. With trepidation, Carinthian social democrats and conservatives supported Haider's course vis-à-vis ideologically explosive questions (foreigners, street signs) - the Carinthian state parliament as National Front. The solitary dissenters, the Greens, only made it into the parliament by a hair's margin. There's hardly a public oppositional voice, because there are basically only two newspapers, one of which is the infamous Krone. The Carinthian affiliate of the National broadcaster ORF reported Haider's death in a manner that can only be described as North Korean. And the few Carinthians who aren't silent with fear or voting BZÖ at the top of their voice have their hands full, finding shelter for asylum-seekers fleeing from Saualm. They call themselves the "Action Committee for More Humanity and Tolerance". They're the best news to come out of Carinthia in ages.


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This article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 5 March, 2009.

Eva Menasse was born in Vienna in 1970. She lives in Berlin, where she works as a journalist and writer. She covered the David Irving trial as an the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Her first literary publicationm "Vienna", was published in 2005.

Translation: Daniel Mufson
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