Unofficial (he officially strepped down because he caused too much bad rep for Austria) leader of the FPÖ. Widely infamous as a Neo-Nazi, but a closer inspection reveals that he is first and foremost the penultimate opportunist and populist: he mainly capitalizes on people's xenophobia, but in general, he simply says whatever he thinks his current audience wants to hear, no matter how blatant a lie it is. The main reason for his ballot triumphs, however, is that the other two big parties of Austria, the SPÖ and the ÖVP, had been in power for a very long time and had become very corrupt. The result was that people began to believe that anything would be better than that - and Haider of course didn't hesitate to promise that he would end all corruption.

Controversial Austrian politician, formerly the leader of the far-right Freedom Party in which he still plays a major role, and governor of the province of Carinthia. Haider became notorious in 1999 when his party obtained 27% of the vote in Austria's general election and became part of the government.

In opposition

Born in 1950, to parents who had both been low-level Nazi members, Haider was seen at the time of his election success as representing a new wave of slick populism among Europe's far right, the young pretender to Jean-Marie Le Pen's elder statesman and an inspiration to the dapper Pim Fortuyn.

Haider capitalised on Austrian disaffection with the existing Proporz system, in which political power had alternated between the Socialist SPOE and the conservative OEVP for several decades. Mixing anti-immigration pledges with promises of social justice, the Freedom Party attracted a sizeable chunk of protest votes from those excluded from the Proporz patronage.

Working hard to make his party appear a dynamic alternative to the established 'red' and 'black' forces, Haider is known for his sharp dressing and a permanent toothy smile that almost recalls Tony Blair. However, he has also racked up a number of unguarded statements which, in the eyes of his opponents, damn him as a neo-fascist.

Probably the most quoted of these was his 1995 description of SS veterans as 'decent men of character'; he had also been forced to resign from his first stint as governor of Carinthia in 1991 after opining that 'During the Third Reich they had a proper employment policy.' Although he would later retract sentiments such as these, he did not do so until well after the 1999 elections.

Even in 1999, the slogan of 'over-foreignisation' to which the Freedom Party resorted during their election campaign was taken by his opponents as harking back to similar language used by Joseph Goebbels.

In government

His party's entry into the government, in coalition with the OEVP, sparked outrage inside and outside Austria. Left-wing protestors maintained a vigil by St. Stephen's Cathedral in central Vienna for much of his tenure as leader, and the EU introduced unprecedented sanctions against Austria at the instigation of Belgium and France, countries attempting to dissuade their own far right. (France, of course, had Le Pen, and Belgium was concerned at the rise of the Flemish Vlaams Blok.)

Although Austria was still allowed to attend multilateral EU summits, official visits to and from Austria were cut off, and when Haider himself visited London in June 1999, he was unable to meet any public figures apart from Margaret Thatcher, who might have laid out the Viennese pastries rather eagerly on her tea-table.

Haider engaged in another round of veiled xenophobia in the run-up to municipal elections in Vienna, and - as if stirring up Austrian politics hadn't been enough - passed through Italy in December 2000 to bestow some encouraging words on the far-right autonomist Umberto Bossi and attack Italy's left-wing government as soft on immigration. He took advantage of the trip to present the Pope with an 80-foot Christmas tree, branded the 'tree of blood' by the Italian left.

He briefly became more a nuisance than a bigot with his involvement in the controversy surrounding the ageing Czech nuclear plant of Temelin, 30 miles from the Austrian border, in January 2002. Many Austrians, whose own country is nuclear-free, wish that the facility would be closed, and Haider organised a referendum on forbidding the Czechs to join the EU until Temelin was shut down.

Nearly a sixth of the electorate signed up to the proposal, but the ensuing exchange of insults between Haider and the Czech prime minister Miloš Zeman appeared to demonstrate that his role in the furore was fuelled by Austrian nationalism rather than his reinvention as a cuddly environmentalist.

Haider resigned as leader of his party in May 2000, retreating to Carinthia where it appeared he would wait until a governmental crisis before swinging in once again as a populist alternative. It was initially feared that he would simply act through his replacement, Suzanne Riess-Passer, but she ended up aligning herself with the party's moderates who are less committed to Haider's favourite policies.

He even threatened to leave national politics altogether in February 2002 after receiving criticism from all possible quarters over his visit to Saddam Hussein, who has since ruled Iraq with an oil painting of Carinthia taking pride of place in his study. Or so Haider, who left him with one, would evidently like to think.

In Carinthia

Although his ambition to become chancellor of Austria by 2003 was widely cited when his rabble-rousing was at its height, he appears for the moment to have contented himself with consolidating himself in Carinthia: the region borders on Slovenia and is especially fertile ground for his attempts to stir up suspicion of refugees.

The Slovene minority, more than a tenth of Carinthia's population, are currently at loggerheads with his Carinthian authorities over bilingual road signs and the teaching of Slovene in schools, strikingly reminiscent of Slovenian grievances against the Habsburgs at the end of the nineteenth century.

Haider's national political future appeared doubtful in any event after the collapse of his party in the elections of November 24, 2002, where they slid to less than 10% of the vote. His resignation as governor of Carinthia was immediately met with calls from his party for him to stay on, in what initially appeared a typical Haider manoeuvre.

The 2002 result was in part put down to the conservatives' exploitation of what was previously archetypal Haider territory: the OEVP's interior minister, Ernst Strasser, took the lead in showing the government to be 'tough on asylum seekers'. Those from countries defined as safe, including Kosovo, were expelled from state refugee camps, leaving charities with the responsibility of caring for them but without any extra funds to do so.

The Freedom Party re-entered government in coalition with the OEVP in February 2003. Haider did not take up any ministerial position, although his sister Ursula Haubner became a deputy minister. Expectations that this government would be more stable than the last were not particularly high: within a day of the announcement Haider was already reported to have expressed opposition to some coalition policies.

As has been the case elsewhere in Europe, the price of marginalising Haider in Austria may well have been that traditional parties have found themselves putting on Haider's well-worn clothes.

Editor's note: Haider was killed in a car crash on October 11, 2008

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