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Western Press Review: Skepticism Over Haider's Resignation

Prague, 1 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In a large outpouring of commentary, the Western press has reacted with near universal skepticism to Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider's surprise resignation Monday as leader of his Freedom Party. Most analysts see the move as a transparent stratagem for Haider to continue to play an important -- but behind-the-scenes -- role in the controversial coalition government the Freedom Party joined with Austria's conservatives (People's Party) last month. The formation of that coalition sparked widespread international condemnation and bilateral political sanctions by Austria's 14 European Union partners.

Here's a broad sampling of Western press views of Haider's action:

FINANCIAL TIMES: Haider's resignation seems to be a cynical move

Britain's Financial Times sums up much of the commentary in its editorial today. The paper writes: "The resignation of Joerg Haider as leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party is hardly the magnanimous gesture he would have the outside world believe. It seems to be a cynical move to distance himself from potentially unpopular decisions within the Austrian government, and position himself to run for chancellor in the future. He will remain very much in control of his party, whether he is formally the leader or not."

The editorial says further: "Mr. Haider's resignation demonstrates that he is a clever political operator. He will exploit his international infamy to the hilt. That leaves the other [14 European Union] member-states in a dilemma about how to demonstrate their distaste without making him more popular. They should have waited for him and his Freedom Party to prove their unfitness for office by their actions. Instead, Mr. Haider and his party can blame international opprobrium if they prove incompetent, as they most probably will. "

GUARDIAN: Haider is not a post- fascist so much as pre-fascist

In the Guardian daily, commentator Geoffrey Wheatcroft says in a commentary that, "if nothing else, Haider is a master of surprise. His resignation as leader of the Freedom Party was quite unexpected. But then, he is something else, an adroit and slippery political operator who ducks and dives with alarming agility." Wheatcroft adds: "Having convulsed Austrian politics, Haider now says that he does not want to be seen as a shadow-chancellor. He has retired to his Carinthian lair [where he is governor of the province], which by no means rules him out of a further attempt on national power."

Wheatcroft says further: "Haider's demagoguery has been misunderstood outside [his] country. He has horrified the rest of Europe [and] has been called a neo-Nazi and a new fuehrer, a neo-fascist or a post-fascist. All of which misses the point," the commentator argues. "The truth is that he is not post- fascist so much as pre-fascist .... Odious as Haider is, there may be a lack of proportion ... in the rage against him. ... Haider has no territorial ambitions and no panzer divisions. Even if he became chancellor, he isn't going to invade Poland. Still," he concludes, "between pre-fascism and post-fascism comes fascism itself. ... With his mountebank flashiness, Joerg Haider can sometimes seem risible. But history does not only repeat itself as farce."

IRISH TIMES: Haider's resignation is a cunning ploy to advance his ambition to become chancellor

In the Irish Times, commentator Denis Staunton argues this: "It is a tribute to Haider's talent for [determining] the political weather that his abrupt resignation as leader of the Freedom Party has been interpreted not as a capitulation to international pressure but as a cunning ploy to advance his ambition to become chancellor." He goes to say: "For all his international notoriety, Haider is a remarkably attractive politician for many Austrians; unburdened by any coherent ideology, he has an uncanny gift for identifying voters' political erogenous zones."

For Staunton, "freedom of opposition suits Haider's temperament better than the respectable confines of coalition government, and he is likely to use his position in Carinthia, where he is immensely popular, to enhance his stature throughout Austria. If the right-wing coalition performs well, Haider will soak up as much credit as he can, but if the new government proves disappointing, he can deny all responsibility."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: The EU is put in the slightly more difficult position

The Wall Street Journal Europe carries an editorial entitled "Haider Goes Underground." The paper says: "The Freedom Party remains very much Mr. Haider's creature. ...Its continuing association with Mr. Haider has recently proved more of a burden than a boon. By remaining governor of Carinthia, he keeps a tight grip on the [party's] center of power, while reducing [its] exposure to attacks directed at himself. The move also distances the party from Mr. Haider's habit of speak-first-and-retract-later."

The editorial continues: "Mr. Haider's resignation forces those around Europe who would erect a cordon sanitaire around his politics to aim at a more diffuse target. Mr. Haider understands that he has become the whipping boy for xenophobic elements in European politics, and has tried to withdraw himself from the limelight." The paper argues that "the EU is thereby put in the slightly more difficult position of condemning not a single maverick politician, but a party representing nearly one-third of the electorate of one of its member nations."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The calls to "carry on" lead nowhere

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung today, Peter Muench says Haider's resignation was "certainly a reaction to the pressure from outside [Austria]. After all," he asks, "what else could have prompted him to make this surprising move?" In a commentary, Muench writes: "Haider, who yearns to be loved, had to react after he had become a figure of loathing everywhere -- except, that is, in Yugoslavia, where the Milosevic regime, in a bizarre act of solidarity, assured a fellow pariah of support."

"Haider," Muench argues further, "is not a man to admit defeat in such a situation. A born survivor, he tries to make the best of every temporary setback. ... On the international stage," he goes on, "Haider's resignation has led him down a path which is designed to lead his detractors after him."

For Muench, who believes the EU sanctions were misguided, that means that Austria's partners now have a big problem. He concludes: "Anyone who thought himself better off for the resignation may be celebrating too early. There are still 14 European governments and Brussels sitting in the Haider trap, forced to look for ways of escape. The calls to "carry on" [against Haider] lead nowhere."

LIBERATION: It's as if Austrians are showing they don't approve of Haider's recent actions

In the French daily Liberation, correspondent Pierre Daum explores another dimension of Haider's resignation. He writes from Vienna: "Recent public-opinion polls show a slight decline in Austrian voters' infatuation with [Haider]. It's as if Austrians, outraged by foreign reaction [to the new coalition] but nonetheless worried, are showing they don't approve of Haider's recent tendency to throw oil on the fire. [And] the coalition's troubles are far over yet. The latest evidence [was] yesterday's resignation of the justice minister [Michael Krueger], supposedly because of 'overwork.'"

WASHINGTON POST: The move could also end up shielding Mr. Haider himself

Finally, an editorial in the Washington Post sees Haider's resignation as "unlikely to mark a dramatic change in [Austria's] politics." The paper writes: "Mr. Haider ... means to shield his party from the 'distraction' of the international opprobrium rained on him. The move could also end up shielding Mr. Haider himself -- and the extremist aura that is plainly part of his appeal -- from whatever compromises the party may make in the work of governing."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: EU officials must now decide how far to go

Like the Sueddeutsche Zeitung's Muench, the Washington Post also believes that the resignation leaves the EU in a quandary. It explains: "The forced separation of Mr. Haider from his party [offers] a challenge to the EU officials and others who have so ringingly condemned him and who must now decide how far to go with sanctions and other steps against Austria, substantive or ceremonial."

The paper concludes: "The more pressing and less showy task for Austria's neighbors is to keep close watch on the Freedom Party's actions in office and to exert pressure if it actually seeks policies that violate EU or human-rights norms. ... That," it says, "will require Europeans to clarify, perhaps more openly than some will find comfortable, exactly what their norms and sensibilities are. Mr. Haider still needs watching, but the party needs watching more. His absence from the political front lines makes that focus easier to accomplish."