GRAZ, Austria – The far right Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) surprised pundits who said its appeal would wane without charismatic leader Joerg Haider, who died after a drunk driving crash in October.
On Sunday, the BZÖ won 45.5 percent of the vote in Carinthia, the rural province that Mr. Haider had made his personal political stronghold. For years, he had charmed locals with a blend of bonhomie, xenophobic rhetoric, and international media attention, which often hinted that he was a closet Nazi.
During Sunday's election, the party managed to improve its share of the vote by 3 percent, despite Haider's absence.
Haider's successor as governor is Gerhard Doerfler, a branch manager at a bank, who has a reputation for "earthiness." This impression was strengthened by a campaign in which he said it made sense to banish "asylum criminals" to remote holding centers because "protecting the population" is more important than human rights. He also told a racist joke to black German singer Roberto Blanco and pretended to suck the breast of a carnival caricature of a black woman. Haider's widow, Claudia, celebrated the victory by handing Doerfler a picture of her late husband and embracing him.
The Socialist Party dropped 10 percentage points to an all time low of 28.8 percent, having been the province's sure-fire political winner for decades. Its leader, Reinhart Rohr, went along with many commentators who said people had voted BZÖ in remembrance of Haider. It was, however, the center-right People's Party (ÖVP) that made the biggest gains, increasing their vote by 5 percentage points to 16.7 percent compared to 2004, while the the Greens struggled to win 5 percent, the threshold needed for a seat.
The Freedom Party (FPÖ), the far-right party Haider from which the BZÖ emerged in 2005 after bitter in-fighting, might have expected an improved performance against a party peddling similar policies but shorn of its original inspiration. But it managed just 3.6 percent of the vote. FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache said it was time to consider a deal with the BZÖ similar to that between the conservative parties in southern Germany, where the two far right parties would agree not to compete directly in local elections.