Resignation of Haider widely seen as tactical

 

The Austrian Chancellor, Dr Wolfgang Schussel, said yesterday that he hoped the resignation of Mr Jorg Haider as leader of the far-right Freedom Party would ease international pressure on his government. But Austria's EU partners were sceptical about Mr Haider's move, which most observers see as a tactical manoeuvre rather than a genuine withdrawal from national politics.

Dr Haider resigned unexpectedly as leader of the Freedom Party late on Monday night, saying that he did not want to "stand in the way" of the new government. The far-right politician, who is not a member of the cabinet, will remain in his present post as provincial governor of Carinthia.

Dr Haider's resignation was followed yesterday by that of his Freedom Party colleague, the Justice Minister, Mr Michael Kruger. The new Freedom Party leader, Ms Susanne Riess-Passer, said Mr Kruger had been taken to hospital for a stress-related illness.

The 44-year-old politician, who spent just 23 days as a minister, made headlines at the weekend following the publication of an interview in which Mr Kruger and an old friend recounted their youthful escapades. During the course of the interview, Mr Kruger asked his friend if he remembered an incident involving Miss Vienna.

"We shared Miss Vienna. First, me in the bedroom, then you in the living room," he replied.

Mr Kruger also claimed that his telephone had been tapped by the previous government, citing clicking and hissing sounds on the line as evidence.

Mr Haider was uncharacteristically modest in explaining his own resignation, saying that it was inappropriate for a provincial governor to lead the party.

"The manager of a branch office in a federal state cannot run the firm," he said.

Dr Schussel hinted that the force of the opposition to the new government, both in Austria and abroad, had taken its toll on the far-right leader, who turned 50 last month.

But most observers in Vienna were convinced that Mr Haider's move was part of a plan to launch a bid to become chancellor in a few years' time. As a semi-detached member of the government, he will be able to distance himself from the rightwing coalition's more unpopular measures while taking credit for its successes.

One of Dr Haider's closest allies in the Freedom Party, Mr Thomas Prinzhorn, appeared to confirm that the far-right leader's retreat was a tactical one.

"Haider is taking a step back so that he can make two decisive steps forward in the future," he said.

Mr Haider declined to rule out a future bid to become chancellor and he plans to remain close to his party's leadership, occupying what he called "an advisory role".