Voters go to the polls on 7 March in a regional election in the southern state of Carinthia with Haider's party, the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), trailing the opposition Socialists.

The charismatic Haider, who has infuriated left wing politicians right across the continent, knows he must triumph if he is to cling on to the last vestiges of his once solid political powerbase in the country.
 
A survey published this week showed if a vote were to be held tomorrow only 32% of people would vote for the FPOe, which would make it a clear loser behind the Socialist party (SPOe), with 39%.

With support at rock-bottom nationwide, even his supporters wonder if he can bounce back this time.

Yet, opponents would be unwise to discount a comeback by the smooth and charismatic Haider, an accomplished political strategist who swept onto the Austrian political stage in October 1999 when the FPOe entered government with the Conservatives (OeVP), a pact denounced by the Socialists as a "deal with the devil".

"I am sure we can win this," Haider told journalists in Carinthia's main city Klagenfurt on Friday.

Anti-immigrant

If he does, it will be a remarkable come-back for the controversial politician who although not officially leader of the FPOe, is the power behind the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant party.

Haider is seen as power behind
the anti-immigrant party  

The high-water mark in his fortunes came in 1999 when in national elections he won 27% of the vote which catapulted him into the number two spot in Wolfgang Schuessel's conservative coalition administration.

The political marriage of a mainstream conservative party with an extremist xenophobic group provoked an outraged reaction in many quarters of the European Union which went as far as to impose sanctions on Vienna.
 
But Haider's bubble was soon to burst and gradual disillusionment among the FPOe's supporters resulted in the collapse of support which is now hovering at about the 10% mark. The most serious defeats came in September 2003 when the party saw its support fall by more than half into single digits in Tyrol and Upper Austria.

Now, he is no longer leader of his party.

Comparison

Haider is not afraid of being called a populist. Slim and svelte, looking younger than his 54 years in a smart blue suit and red-and-white tie (the colours of Austria) he cultivates the man-in-the-street image.

"I would be hard-pressed to choose between the two (Bush and Saddam). Both have acted at odds with international law, committed human rights abuses...the one has the good luck to lead a superpower ... while the other was just a poor dictator"

Joerg Haider, 
Freedom Party (FPOe)

"If it means being a democrat and close to the people, there is nothing to be ashamed of," he said.

He refuses, however, to be compared with the extreme-right National Front leader in France, Jean Marie le Pen. "I am not a copy of anyone," he said, adding he was just an Austrian wanting to reform his country.

Haider's reputation for controversial outbursts has been both a boon and a burden. In 1991 he lost his job as governor of Carinthia after praising what he called the "correct employment policy of the Third Reich."
 
On Friday the talk was more prosaic, of developing the local economy and transport projects to improve links with neighbouring Italy.

Hitler
 
The super-fit Austrian said he stood by comments he made back in December when he said that morally there was little difference between US President George Bush and ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"I would be hard-pressed to choose between the two. Both have acted at odds with international law, committed human rights abuses," he said.
 
"The one has the good luck to lead a superpower ... while the other was just a poor dictator," he said.

Asked about the difference between Bush, an elected president and the former dictator Saddam, Haider replied: "Hitler too arrived in power democratically," in 1933.

The old firebrand image looks likely to stick with him for many years to come, through the good times and the bad.