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A Death And A Flourishing

Apropos of my post last week about the return of the Austrian far-right to the nation's political scene, this weekend's death of Joerg Haider in a car accident obviously makes for an astounding turn of events. It would be nice to think that with his passing, supporters of his extremist Alliance for the Future of Austria would drift back to the mainstream. But while his party will probably dissolve quickly, its ranks will most likely move to the equally xenophobic Freedom Party and its charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. After all, the split between the two parties was primarily over the personalities of these two demagogues, and the tilt of the electorate toward their camps--a combined 27 percent in the election two weeks ago--is more about disgust with the erstwhile coalition of the centrist right and left than about the far-right's message per se. That means that in the wake of Haider's death, Strache stands to gain big. The question now is how current negotiations over the next government's formation will go. The Social Democrats, the largest party, will realistically have to form a coalition with one of the two far-right parties, given the voters' rejection of the mainstream coalition. Without Haider at his party's helm, any coalition with the Alliance for the Future of Austria will be short-lived, and in a year another election will probably force the Social Democrats to confront an even more powerful Freedom Party. Should the Social Democrats be forced to form a coalition with them, or should the Freedom Party win a plurality, it would call into question the very legitimacy of Austrian democracy. Austria may have lost a demagogue, but it has likely gained an even stronger radical right wing in the process.