End of an Era – The passing of two politicians who shaped late 20th century Austria

15 11 2008
Helmut Zilk and Thomas Klestil

Helmut Zilk and Thomas Klestil

Photo: Helmut Zilk (left) and Austrian President Thomas Klestil. Photo Credit: Österr. Bundesheer

Far right leader Jörg Haider’s sudden and tragic death in the early hours of his mother’s 90th birthday celebration, mirrored his political life. The Carinthian regional governor was a whirlwind, a controversial and charismatic populist, who successfully dominated Austrian domestic and international politics for over two decades.

Less than two weeks later, Austria mourned yet another political firecracker: Helmut Zilk, former Social Democratic Mayor of Vienna (1984 – 1994) died peacefully in his sleep Oct. 24th. at the age of 82. Zilk, although nominally retired, was still was actively involved in Austrian politics until a few years ago, and certainly willingly offered criticism on almost anything to do with the SPÖ.

His reach beyond party politics brought him respect from political opponents. Among those was Erhard Busek, Zilk’s political adversary, who called him a “Streithansl (squabbler) but also a man with a sense for reconciliation.”

Zilk and Haider were acquaintances. Jörg Haider’s bedside visit to Zilk in December 1993 became the stuff of legend, when the Mayor of Vienna was seriously injured by right-wing extremists in a letter bomb attack that destabilized Austria for months. On that occasion, Haider spoke of Zilk as his “väterlicher Freund” (fatherly friend). In 2000, when Haider’s FPÖ joined in government with Wolfgang Schüssel’s ÖVP, Zilk stated that “whether we like it or not, Jörg Haider is the only political talent that Austria has experienced in the past few years.”

Although their political persuasions were in many ways conflicting, their methods were not. Both were populist politicians, eloquent in their expression and able to reach out to voters. Both were skillful self publicists, apt at manipulating the media to their own means. Zilk was a popular ORF television journalist in the 1960s before his promotion to Television Director under Gerd Bach in 1967.

Before entering politics in 1979, Zilk worked as Ombudsman for the Kronen Zeitung. He was short lived as Education Minister under Fred Sinowatz (1983 – 1984), but he was a political landmark for Vienna. The ‘Wien ist anders’ campaign was his brainchild, and encouraged pride in the city.

In 1986, Jörg Haider was only 36 old when he entered national politics, when he overtook the more liberal Norbert Steger as FPÖ party leader. Until then, the FPÖ was a small party with about 5% public support, and had been the junior partner of the Social Democrats in government since 1983.

Of course, there were the disastrous annotated Hitler quotations in 1991, praising Nazi Employment polices which ended his first term as Provincial Governor of Carinthia. He appeared and spoke at meetings of former Waffen SS personnel, which caused international outcry. Equally controversial were his visits to the Arabic world, where he met Saddam Hussein, and his friendship with Libya’s dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.

But still, in 1999, the FPÖ under Haider’s leadership had caught up with the other two larger political parties, and with 26.91 % of the popular vote and 500 votes ahead of the ÖVP, his party earned its seat in government in 2000. Little was Austria prepared, however, for the international outrage expressed at this far right coalition in Vienna. Sanctions imposed by the European Union against Austrian government ministers and high-ranking civil servants were, in retrospect, a political overreaction, which propagated a negative image of European institutions.

Although the rise of the FPÖ under Haider’s leadership was comet-like, even faster was the decline. In 2002, the rift within his political movement escalated following consecutive election defeats in local and provincial elections, and the resignation of the most prominent members of his government in the Fall of 2002 caused the most dramatic election defeat in Austria’s political history.


The foundation of the BZÖ in April 2005 was almost comical, and had little chance of success. Nevertheless the poorly organized party survived with 4.1% of the vote in the 2006 general elections, and delivered Haider’s promise of a new start.

It took two more years to seal a sensational comeback, with the BZÖ gaining about 11% of the popular vote in September 2008, and the fourth ranking in parliament, ahead of the Green Party.

On Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008, I saw Haider’s last campaign stop in Vienna at Viktor Adler Markt in Vienna’s 10th district. Little did I expect that this would be the last time I could witness face-to-face the energy the 58-year-old Haider exuded in election campaigns. He enjoyed the contact with the people, the kisses and hugs, as well as the admiration.

And even I, traditionally not inclined to support either his party or his policies, was drawn to the event. Haider’s legacy is incomplete, in spite of the state funeral. Helmut Zilk, on the other hand, had had his time. As Erhard Busek said, “Zilk was different.”

This is an excerpt, the full article will be published in November 2008 in The Vienna Review.




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