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Austria: Freedom Party Resignations Throw Political Scene Into Disarray

The future of Austria's governing coalition is in question following the surprise resignation of key political leaders from the rightist Freedom Party, amid a rift in the party ranks. Is this the end of the coalition that caused so much international controversy when it took power in 2000? And what does the development mean for the European Union enlargement process?

Prague, 9 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Joerg Haider was never the sort of man to rest easy in the backwaters of Austria's Carinthia Province.

As the driving force behind the far-right Freedom Party's rise to power, Haider was not likely to forget developments in Vienna in favor of settling into rustic life merely as provincial governor.

Retirement to the countryside was the impression he sought to convey as the Freedom Party strove over the last two years to temper its far-right image. Haider, as longtime party leader, had created that image with his controversial comments in support of some Nazi-era policies and his aura of hostility to foreigners.

Haider forged in early 2000 the Freedom Party's present role as a junior partner in a ruling coalition with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's conservative People's Party. But the Freedom Party received so much criticism, including a period of frozen relations between Austria and the European Union, that he gradually gave up his national positions and withdrew from the spotlight to the governor's office in Klagenfurt.

Or rather, he appeared to withdraw. The fact is, he remains the power to reckon with in the Freedom Party, and this week he and his supporters successfully drove out two key figures who had sought to place the Freedom Party more in the political mainstream. They are Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, who was also Freedom Party chairwoman, and Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, considered by many the party's rising star.

The two resigned at a marathon session of party leaders yesterday, along with Freedom Party parliamentary leader Peter Westenthaler. The decisive moment came when Haider, backed by scores of rank-and-file loyalists, sought to force the government to cut taxes next year despite the widening deficit.

Partly because of the cost of paying for repairs after devastating floods, Riess-Passer and Grasser viewed this as irresponsible. Riess-Passer also rejected proposed closer party control over their actions as ministers.

Some analysts see Haider's actions are linked to his frustrations at being sidelined while his party goes its own way into the political mainstream. As Stefan Marteel of Bonn University's ZEI think tank put it: "He may have hoped to get more out of it, may have hoped the party would achieve some big change [toward the right]. And that did not occur, of course, because they had to adapt to the parliamentary system, and Haider, from where he stands, was probably very disappointed in his own ministers."

At a press conference to announce the resignations, Riess-Passer did not point the finger of blame at anybody, nor did she or Grasser mention Haider once by name. "In the last weeks, there has been an ever-growing rift between us and part of the party, and unfortunately, every attempt to bridge this rift has failed. In hours-long, nights-long talks, we have staked everything on restoring the necessary unity and solidity in the party. But unfortunately, we must acknowledge today that that was not possible," Riess-Passer said.

Nor were there any hard words for the Freedom Party, which she praised both in the past and the present, saying: "The Freedom Party is the decisive reform party in this country. It was so when in opposition and is so now when in government. Exactly for this reason, the present crisis cannot be further prolonged."

She announced a special congress on 20 October to choose a new party leadership. She did not give any firm clue as to whether she or Grasser will be contesting any positions at that congress, except perhaps by the mild tone of her criticism, which hinted at not wanting to "burn bridges."

For his part, Grasser, who could be ending a promising political career, couched his exit remarks in even more abstract terms. "We have always set ourselves high targets as far as employment goes, and prosperity, and as to what we can do for the economic competitiveness of this country. And in this situation, we have to face that we cannot implement the reform policies we have chosen," Grasser said.

Of course, early elections are always a possibility. Schuessel has already said he would rather go to the polls than suffer prolonged arguments.

The party row could also have an impact on the European Union enlargement process, which is set to get under way in 2004 with as many as 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe. The new Freedom Party appointees are likely to be loyal to Haider, and Haider is not enthusiastic about either the expansion process or the EU itself.

That could make more likely a hardening of the government's approach to enlargement in general and to the Czech Republic's membership in particular. Haider favors placing conditions on Czech membership, in terms of the closure of the controversial Temelin nuclear plant and the withdrawal of the so-called Benes Decrees, which dispossessed ethnic Germans after World War II.

Prague has already refused both demands.