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New partner in Austrian power is hard to sum up

From pariah to prince in just a few months, Joerg Haider has leapt onto the international stage. But attempts to label the politician who changes his opinions as regularly as his designer suits almost always fail.

"I'd call him a neo-fascist because of the authoritarian structure of his party and the political goals he has expressed,"said Armin Thurnher, editor of the left-liberal Austrian weekly newspaper Falter. "But any attempt to define him is useless because he will prove to you that he's not that at all."

In a recent biography, author Christa Zoechling said Haider is "hard to pin down because at some point every popular opinion finds a home with him."

"He likes to see himself as a victim of circumstance. At one time or another he said that he feels he has been treated like a Kurd, a Palestinian or even a Jew."

Haider was born in Bad Goisern, Austria, on Jan. 26, 1950. His father, a shoemaker, and mother, a teacher, joined the Nazi party in 1929, when it was illegal, nine years before Hitler annexed Austria.

After World War II the couple returned to Bad Goisern to find their home in ruins. As a former Nazi, his mother was forbidden to teach, and they were officially ostracized. The couple said they knew nothing about the concentration camps. "We were stamped as criminals just because we did our duty," his mother, Dorothea, once said. "We had no idea of concentration camps."

People like Haider's parents who got caught felt that they had been unjustly persecuted. "That sense of injustice defines where Haider is coming from," Thurnher said.

Although other pupils made fun of his plumpness at school, he did better at sports than more athletic counterparts and, without really trying, was almost always at the top of the class, teachers said. He joined a far-right sports organization, the Austrian Sports Union, and a fraternity of male uniformed students where he learned to fence. Within that group, led by old Nazis who supervised beer-drinking and outdoor activities, he formed many of his ideas.

Young Haider became a proficient fencer. According to a friend, Thomas Huemer, he used to practice on a straw doll to which was pinned the name of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

After holding various posts in the Freedom Party, a breakaway from the Union of Independents, in which former Nazis found a home after the war, Haider moved to the province of Carinthia to become party secretary in 1976. In 1979 he became a member of Parliament.

The defining moment came in 1986 when he overthrew the party's liberal wing in a leadership battle. In 1989 he became governor of Carinthia.

In October 1990 Haider said he "appreciated" the efforts of Waffen SS officers in "a struggle for freedom and democracy in Europe." A year later, he was ousted as Carinthian governor for saying: "During the Third Reich they had a proper employment policy."

In 1995 he told a meeting of SS officers that he was glad "there are still decent people in this world, people of character who have the courage of their convictions." That year he referred to concentration camps as "penal camps."

He spent the next years softening his image, and in 1999 he regained his post as governor of Carinthia.

After his party won more than 27 percent of the vote in the October 1999 election Haider apologized for his pro-Nazi remarks and declared that he aimed to become chancellor by 2003.