After firebrand Austrian politician Jörg Haider died in a car crash last October, the future of his extreme right-wing party appeared uncertain. But in regional elections this month, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) showed that it is still very much alive. With more votes than ever before, Haider’s successor Gerhard Dörfler easily retained top spot in Carinthia, where Haider served as governor for 12 years. At Dörfler’s re-election celebration, party head Uwe Scheuch told a crowd of jubilant supporters: “We have become even stronger in the post-Jörg Haider era.”
The BZÖ has yet to expand its popularity much beyond Haider’s old stomping grounds, but the victory, coupled with advances by the far-right Freedom Party in Salzburg, is stoking fears that extreme right-wing platforms are gaining traction in tough times. As in Austria, unemployment and discontent are thrusting Germany’s far right into the mainstream. Though widely derided as neo-Nazis, the National Democratic Party (NDP) has enjoyed electoral success in the depressed east, where the anti-immigration, anti-European Union platform has proven appealing. In February, former NDP official Uwe Luthardt gave credence to concerns about rising neo-Nazism when he told Der Spiegel magazine: “The simple aim is the restoration of the Reich.”
The world, however, is watching closely. Before Haider crashed his car into a cement pole, his derision of foreigners—and occasional pro-Nazi remarks—won him few friends on the international stage. Austria faced EU sanctions for several months in 2000 when Haider, then a member of the Freedom Party, was included in the country’s coalition government. Likewise in Germany, where Holocaust denial is illegal, the NDP have been repeatedly investigated.
For now, says University of Toronto political science professor Jeffrey Kopstein, these parties “are still considered marginal, extremist groups.” But that could change. If the recession deepens, he says, the solution they’re offering may start to “look more appealing.”