VIENNA, Austria – Austrian politician Joerg Haider, whose far-right rhetoric in the 1990s was denounced as sympathetic to the Nazis, died early Saturday in a car accident.
Haider, 58, the governor of the the southern province of Carinthia, had been making a return to national politics with a more moderate line, almost a decade after his party's inclusion in the Austrian government led to European Union sanctions.
Haider's car veered off the road in southern Austria after overtaking another vehicle, and overturned, police said. He was alone in the car.
Haider suffered severe injuries to his head and chest despite wearing a seatbelt. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, said Thomas Koperna, the hospital's medical director.
The charismatic Haider was leader of the far-right Alliance for the Future of Austria.
"For us, it's like the end of the world," Haider's spokesman and the alliance's secretary-general, Stefan Petzner, told the Austria Press Agency.
Speaking at a news conference later, a visibly emotional Petzner pledged to keep Haider's legacy alive.
"In these difficult hours, we have to be grateful for what was, and what he gave us all and what he achieved," Petzner said, his voice breaking.
Haider had attended an event in thetown of Velden before the accident happened, Petzner said.
Politicians from across the political spectrum in Austria expressed shock at Haider's sudden death.
Austrian President Heinz Fischer described Haider's death as a "human tragedy."
Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer expressed his condolences to Haider's family and described him as someone who had shaped Austria's domestic political landscape over decades.
In 1999, Haider received 27 percent of the vote in national elections as leader of the Freedom Party. The party's subsequent inclusion in the government led to months of European Union sanctions as Haider's statements were seen as anti-Semitic or sympathetic to Adolf Hitler's labor policies.
Haider had since significantly toned down his rhetoric and in 2005 broke away from the Freedom Party to form the new alliance, meant to reflect a turn toward relative moderation.
Over the summer, he staged a comeback in national politics and helped the alliance significantly improve its standing in Sept. 28 national elections.
Haider sought to distance himself from his rightist past, which included a comment in 1991 that the Third Reich had an "orderly employment policy" and a 1995 reference to concentration camps as "the punishment camps of National Socialism."
Haider enjoyed tremendous popularity in Carinthia and was known by opponents and supporters alike as intelligent and politically savvy.
The impact of Haider's death on Austrian domestic politics was not immediately clear. Just last week, Haider and Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, met for what appeared to be a successful attempt to put aside their personal differences in light of their combined success at the polls. Taken together, the results of their two parties came to 28.2 percent of the ballot — putting them on nearly equal footing with the winning Social Democrats.
Haider is survived by his wife, two daughters and his mother, whose 90th birthday he and his family had planned to celebrate over the weekend.