Image: Haider and Petzner
Lilli Strauss  /  AP
Joerg Haider, left, is seen on Sept. 28 with Stefan Petzner in Vienna.
updated 10/24/2008 4:33:47 PM ET 2008-10-24T20:33:47

Was Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider secretly gay?

Speculation that he led a double life raged this week after his political protege, Stefan Petzner, publicly called Haider "the man of my life" in a tearful tribute to the former Freedom Party boss killed in a car crash earlier this month.

Petzner, 27, did not say explicitly that he and Haider, a 58-year-old married father of two, were gay or had a sexual relationship.

But Petzner's tears and the tone of his remarks — along with photographs purportedly showing Haider in a gay bar on the eve of his death — have raised questions about whether the ultraconservative nationalist had something to hide.

"This can't go on," said Michael Fleischhacker, editor-in-chief of the daily Die Presse.

"Stefan Petzner needs to make a decision: Either he describes what was so special about his relationship with Joerg Haider, or he stops publicly playing the role of Haider's successor and widow," Fleischhacker wrote in his blog.

Haider died Oct. 11 after crashing his car in the southern province of Carinthia, where he was governor. Investigators say he was drunk and speeding at twice the posted limit when the car plowed into a concrete post and flipped.

Wife suspects foul play
Haider was alone in the vehicle, and although authorities have said there is no evidence to suggest foul play, his widow has refused to have Haider's body cremated until independent forensics experts take another look at the remains.

In death, as in life, Haider remains steeped in controversy.

When his Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in 1999 elections, and joined Austria's coalition government early in 2000, the European Union slapped the country with months of diplomatic sanctions in protest of statements by Haider that came off sounding anti-Semitic.

Though Haider praised aspects of Hitler's labor policies, criticized immigrants as lazy, criminal and corrupt, and seemed contemptuous of Jews, neither he nor his party ever said anything derogatory about homosexuals, or made traditional family values a key campaign theme.

Haider had left the Freedom Party to form the somewhat more moderate Alliance for the Future of Austria, and Petzner, his deputy, succeeded him as party chief after Haider's death. Together, the two rightist parties won about 29 percent of the vote in last month's parliamentary elections.

Within hours of the fatal crash, Petzner went on national television. Sobbing, he declared: "For us, it's like the end of the world."

That in itself struck some as a bit unusual. But late last week, in an emotional interview broadcast on Austrian radio, Petzner went further.

"We had a special relationship that went far beyond friendship," he said. "Joerg and I were connected by something truly special. He was the man of my life ... I loved him as a best friend."

'Lebensmensch'
Petzner chose his words carefully, and what he really meant remains open to interpretation. He called Haider his "Lebensmensch" — a term in German that could suggest an intimate relationship, but also could be used to describe an icon or a mentor.

Calls by The Associated Press to Petzner's cell phone seeking comment went unanswered Friday.

In recent days, several Austrian newspapers and the respected news weekly Profil have published grainy photos they say show Haider in the Stadtkraemer — a gay bar in Klagenfurt, the provincial capital of Carinthia.

Haider's widow, Claudia, and two married daughters have refused to comment, and his party insists his relationship with Petzner was purely platonic. Petzner was passed over this week as the Alliance's floor leader in parliament, but he remains the bloc's boss.

Party officials said Friday the controversy was not a factor in the decision to snub him as floor leader, noting that Haider also didn't serve in that capacity.

For decades, rumors had swirled that Haider might be gay. Some had even taken to calling his political bloc the "Boys' Party" because Haider's entourage often included a bevy of tanned young men.

Austrians, however, are fiercely protective of what they call the "sphere of privacy" — a no-go zone that many feel applies as much to public figures as to ordinary citizens.

Others, like businessman Thomas Neuhold, contend a politician's sexual orientation is irrelevant.

"I believe it's been well-known for a long time that Joerg Haider was gay, and to be honest, I'm completely OK with that. We're living in 2008," he said.

"If more homosexual politicians would out themselves, it would be a great thing for Austria."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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