Austrian leader bows out - for now

Jrg Haider said he would resign as party leader Feb. 28. Few think he's really gone.

Opponents at home have dubbed it a savvy bid aimed at an eventual run for Austria's top political post. Abroad, it was met with everything from open skepticism to a wait-and-see attitude.

Far-right politician Jrg Haider announced Feb. 28 that he intended to step down as head of the far-right Freedom Party. But so far, there are few signs that the move succeeded in reducing international criticism and diplomatic isolation of Austria since the party joined the coalition government on Feb. 4.

Justice Minister Michael Krger, with the Freedom Party, also resigned Feb. 29, but it was unclear whether the decisions were related.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, of the center-right People's Party, said Mr. Haider was "taking a personal part in easing the tensions in the European Union," by stepping down. But EU leaders appeared unimpressed.

"The problem is not Jrg Haider, but what his party represents," Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres told reporters in Lisbon. Portugal currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Haider has come under fire for praising some aspects of the Nazi regime, for which he later apologized. He and other party officials also have denounced foreign workers in Austria.

The US State department called Haider's resignation a "step in the right direction," but said it remained concerned that the Freedom Party remains in government. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said the resignation "does not change anything for us." Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna after the coalition government took office.

Announcing his resignation, Haider said he wanted to head off the accusation that he was calling the shots in the ruling coalition. "I want to avoid our ministers having to face the claim that they must refer every decision to the 'shadow chancellor,' " he said. "The Freedom Party ministers are not puppets."

Haider said he will take on an "advisory" function in the party and will also remain governor of the province of Carinthia.

While there is no indication EU countries will restore bilateral contacts with Austria anytime soon, Haider's resignation has put the EU in a difficult position. Its attacks on Austria's governing coalition were largely directed at Haider, who, as his supporters pointed out repeatedly, was not in the government. Now that he is no longer even head of the Freedom Party, analysts say the EU will have a hard time justifying its opposition.

"They have to accept the government now," says Claudia von Werlhof, professor of political science at the University of Innsbruck. "It is very tricky for the EU. Haider cannot be attacked because he is out of the game, at least officially." The EU's position is further complicated by the fact that the resignation does not signal the end to Haider's political ambitions. Recognizing the coalition now could mean legitimizing a government that could well be led by Haider in future.

Over the weekend, the Freedom Party leader repeated his ambition to become Austria's chancellor. Following the announcement of his resignation, Haider said he did not rule out running as a candidate in the next elections.

Opposition politicians dismissed the resignation as a mere political gambit, claiming the charismatic politician would not cease to be in charge even without the official title of party head.

Alfred Gusenbauer, the designated leader of the former ruling Social Democrats, said Haider would continue to "lead the Freedom Party on a short leash." Alexander Van der Bellen, head of the Greens party, called the move "hardly believable and politically transparent."

"Haider has tried to prevent his position from falling into normality," according to Prof. von Werlhof. "He has to come out of the normal, daily business of government because if he is associated with these decisions, people won't vote for him anymore."

Nevertheless, the resignation came as a shock, even to members of his own party. Hans-Jrg Schmanek, head of the Freedom Party in the province of Lower Austria, said "At least 50 percent of the Freedom Party is Jrg Haider."

Haider will be succeeded by Susanne Riess-Passer, the vice chancellor and former party manager. Considered one of Haider's fiercest loyalists, Riess-Passer earned the nickname "Queen Cobra" for her staunch defense of her party chief over the years.

Social Democratic leader Mr. Gusenbauer also claimed that stepping down would ultimately serve Haider's aim, saying the move meant Haider could continue to play the role of opposition leader from his seat in Carinthia, only to re-emerge as the "savior of the Fatherland" in the next elections, due by 2003. A vote could be called even sooner if the Freedom Party were to pull out of the ruling coalition.

"Haider is what he is. He is the leader and he is trying to become Chancellor," says von Werlhof. "The question is only how he going to manipulate and control the situation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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