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    Austria pays tribute to late rightist Haider

    18.10.2008 - 16:15 | Son Güncelleme:

    Thousands of Austrians mourned Saturday Joerg Haider, a far-right populist leader who died in a high-speed car crash a week ago.

    Around 25,000 mourners attended Haider's memorial service in the capital of the Alpine province where he was governor for over a decade and was seen by many as a leader with a common touch who took on the political establishment in Vienna.

    One of Austria's rare internationally recognized public figures, Haider led the right into a coalition government from 2000-2006 and helped thrust anti-immigrant politics into the European mainstream with his blunt and polarizing rhetoric.

    "He was a man who could leave no one cold, whether in a positive or a negative sense," Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said at Haider's open-air memorial service.

    Haider's notoriety peaked in the 1990s when he scolded Austria's government by citing the "proper labor policies" of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. He had also referred to Nazi concentration camps as "penal camps" in a parliamentary debate.

    Haider's modern populism, which also targeted what he saw as the loss of national sovereignty to European Union integration, helped break the grip on government of centrist parties he said were out of touch with grassroot concerns.

    "Although he was controversial and contested, he spoke for European democracy. Haider was not only local, Austrian, but had a European message," said Albert Gardin, who had travelled from Venice to pay his respects.

    Mourners, many dressed in traditional green and brown, added wreaths to the dozens put outside government headquarters since after his fatal car accident in the early hours of Oct. 11.

    Around 12,000 people queued silently for hours on Friday to pay tribute at his closed coffin, placing official photographs of the tanned and casually clothed Haider among red candles.

    "He wasn't just a politician, he was a friend to everyone," said 27-year-old Yvonne Graessl.

    Haider's pale wood coffin, decked in rich red flowers and ribbon, was carried in front of the government headquarters by six men in black robes to solemn brass band music.

    Haider died when the luxury car he was driving at more than 140 kmh (85 mph), twice the speed limit, crashed off a road in Carinthia on his way to a family reunion.

    Haider's spokesman and political successor, Stefan Petzner, said he had seen the famously fun-loving 58-year-old outside a night club shortly before his accident. Haider's blood alcohol was nearly four times the legal limit.

    "Although it won't change anything about his death, I will try to reconstruct everything that happened," Petzner told Austrian daily Oesterreich on Friday.

    Haider burst back onto the scene this year at the head of right wing splinter group Alliance for Austria's Future.

    The far right, comprising rivals Alliance and Haider's former party Freedom, won a combined one third of votes in a parliamentary election last month.

    Photo: AP

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