Joerg Haider, the Austrian anti-immigrant nationalist leader killed in a 2008 car wreck, may accomplish posthumously what he didn’t do in life: revamp the nation’s politics by revealing its broken party financing.
Haider allegedly brought back up to $5 million from trips to see Saddam Hussein, before the Iraqi dictator was deposed and executed after the 2003 war, according to a lobbyist’s diary entries. Haider may have received another $45 million from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, according to the diary. Officials at both the Iraqi and the Libyan embassies in Vienna declined to comment on the allegations when contacted by phone on Aug. 11.
The handwritten notebook, seized by police in February and published by Austrian news magazine Falter, is evidence in an investigation into tax evasion and breach of trust by former Haider party officials, Justice Ministry spokesman Thomas Vecsey said Aug. 9 in a telephone interview. The lobbyist, Walter Meischberger, told Vienna’s Die Presse newspaper on Aug. 7 that he only recorded “rumors” in the diary.
Austria’s party-financing system has been under scrutiny since at least June 2008, when the Council of Europe issued a report saying “the country is still at an early stage of the fight against corruption.” Politicians in Austria don’t have to publicly name their donors, don’t need to reveal how they spend funds, can accept cash payments from abroad and enjoy immunity from all but the most serious breaches of law. Nobody knows how much parties get in private funds. The 47-country Council of Europe, set up in 1949, promotes European unity through common democratic and human-rights principles.
“In Austria it isn’t against the law to accept donations from foreign nationals, foreign governments or foreign dictatorships,” Hubert Sickinger, a political scientist at Vienna’s Institute of Conflict Research who has written three books on party financing, said in an interview. “Should a politician have accepted donations from Qaddafi, this would be a political scandal, but it would not be against the Political Parties Act.”
Austria slipped two places, to No. 16, in the latest Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. The country of 8 million people ranks just ahead of Japan, No. 17, and the U.K., No. 18, on the 180-country list. New Zealand is perceived to be the least corrupt.
“Political parties continue to be the least trusted group,” Berlin-based Transparency’s Policy and Research Director Robin Hodess said in an Aug. 6 interview. “The European Union until now hasn’t been focused on corruption within its own region.”
Haider gained prominence and support in the 1990s by criticizing Austria’s entrenched Social Democratic and People’s Party elites. His Freedom Party joined Austria’s ruling coalition in 2000, prompting the European Union to impose an unprecedented seven-month diplomatic boycott on the country because of Haider’s presence and alleged sympathy to Nazi ideology. Haider once praised Adolf Hitler’s employment policies.
The Alliance for Austria’s Future, the political party Haider founded after he quit the Freedom Party in 2005, denied in an Aug. 8 statement that he took money from Hussein. The Freedom Party said on Aug. 9 that government prosecutors should focus on current corruption inside state-run companies rather than review Haider’s accounts.
The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption, called Greco, sent observer teams to Austria in 2006 and 2007. Austria is the only Council of Europe member state not to publicly release a subsequent study on how well it is observing anti-corruption recommendations in Europe.
Now, Greco is threatening another round of investigations into Austria next year, Sickinger said. Greco Deputy Chairman Christophe Speckbacher, in an Aug. 5 interview, declined to confirm or deny whether the Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe would investigate,
“It’s been obvious from the beginning that political-party financing was a big issue for corruption,” Speckbacher said.
Council of Europe investigators were told by law-enforcement authorities “that party financing is particularly untransparent in Austria and it gives the impression that one can easily give money to elected officials in order to secure a favorable decision,” the 46-page 2008 report says.
Haider may have hidden money he received from Hussein and Qaddafi in bank accounts in Liechtenstein or Switzerland, according to Austrian media reports.
Switzerland hasn’t been contacted by Austrian authorities about “potential accounts of Joerg Haider,” Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Folco Galli said in Aug. 10 phone interview.
Liechtenstein prosecutor Robert Wallner said the principality was unaware of evidence revealing accounts to which Haider or his associates had access. The government in Vaduz isn’t offering legal assistance in the matter, Wallner said in an e-mailed statement, declining to comment further on Haider.
“There is a general global trend toward more transparency,” said Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info, the Madrid-based organization that tracks European freedom of information laws. “Austria lags behind in this regard because it has a weak and poorly implemented access to information.”
Haider’s interactions with Hussein and Qaddafi aren’t the subject of a formal inquiry because under Austrian law the dead cannot be investigated.