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Austria: Haider Quits Party Leadership, Citing Fears For Personal Safety

Austrian ultraright politician Joerg Haider has been trying to explain why he suddenly decided not to seek the leadership of his Freedom Party. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, Austrian politicians are meeting Haider's explanation with a certain degree of skepticism.

Prague, 18 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Joerg Haider, in an interview this week with Austrian radio and television (ORF), once again linked his decision over the weekend not to seek the chairmanship of his Freedom Party with Austria's purchase of fighter jets and a possible threat on his life.

In the ORF interview, broadcast on 16 September, Haider says that just as he was about to enter a cafe in Klagenfurt on 13 September, a man approached him.

"As I wanted to enter the place, someone approached me whom I remember well and said to me, 'Dr. Haider, do not interfere with the purchase of the fighter jets and take good care of your family.'"

Haider is strongly opposed to the purchase of 18 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. Last month, the Austrian government reduced the number to be purchased from 24 to help defray costs of the August floods.

Haider has favored tax cuts over the fighter jets. Now, however, the right-wing politician says personal threats have left him so fearful he has withdrawn his candidacy for the Freedom Party (FPOe) leadership to be determined at a party conference this Saturday:

"All these circumstances and goings on that have been taking center stage in recent weeks have confirmed my belief that people aren't playing with normal cards any more -- and that, of course, I'm not willing to endanger my family in any way. And to that end, I have taken myself out of the race."

But Peter Sichrovsky, the Freedom Party's outgoing general secretary, dismisses Haider's allegations as "absurd." Andreas Khol, the parliamentary whip of the senior party in the ruling coalition People's Party (OeVP), describes Haider's resignation as "a tactical maneuver." He told the Graz daily "Kleine Zeitung" that Haider "is just waiting for everyone to come begging him to come back."

Others suspect the charismatic right-wing politician is merely looking for an excuse to withdraw from the political scene ahead of early elections that could prove embarrassing as his party plummets in the polls.

The early elections -- scheduled for 24 November -- were called following the collapse of the government early this month after Haider prompted the resignation of leading rivals within the Freedom Party.

Public opinion polls indicate a dramatic decline in support for the Freedom Party, from 27 percent in the last parliamentary elections in 1999 to 14 percent now. The opposition Green Party has seized the initiative to lure disaffected low wage earners away from the Freedom Party. The party's plight is so grim that few within its leadership are willing to be considered for the top party post.

Haider resigned as the Freedom Party's leader in early 2000. He continues to serve as governor of the southern Austrian province of Carinthia, and says he does not intend to give up the post until local elections are next held in 2004.

In the ORF interview, Haider compared his situation to that of Dutch right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered earlier this year:

"A few weeks ago, a Dutch reporter who was very close to Pim Fortuyn said while interviewing me that Pim Fortuyn's big mistake was to have inserted into his party program a demand that there should be no further military buildup in Holland on land or in the air, but only in the navy. That was apparently his death sentence, because he was murdered within a few days. I believe that we must all be aware that this is uncharted territory. For that reason, I am suffering the consequences."

Police in Carinthia say Haider has yet to request an investigation into the alleged threat. However, Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia says the ministry has launched an investigation of its own into Haider's allegations. Gollia expressed surprise that Haider has yet to ask for additional police protection in light of his repeated requests for protection in recent years. Police have demanded a portion of the Haider interview for examination.

In a written statement issued 14 September, Haider offered another explanation for his decision not to seek the party's top post. In his statement, he alludes to corruption within the Freedom Party, adding that certain economic interests within the party in purchasing the fighter jets "had clearly handicapped the party's political maneuverability."

Haider has succeeded in splitting his own party, winning a power struggle by forcing the 7 September resignation of key party leaders, including party chairwoman and Deputy Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, Transportation Minister Mathias Reichold, and the party's parliamentary whip Peter Westenthaler. The head of the Freedom Party in the province of Upper Austria, Hans Achatz, announced his resignation yesterday following criticism from within the party over his role in forcing the ministers to resign and bringing down the Austrian government.

Riess-Passer and Defense Minister Herbert Scheiber have both denied any wrongdoing in backing the purchase of the Typhoon fighter jets.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Party is reaping further negative publicity with the start of a trial in Vienna yesterday involving allegations that party politicians paid the police to provide personal data about their political opponents and that investigations of leading Freedom Party members -- including Haider -- were halted.