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Haider quits as party chief

The Austrian far right in power: special report

Jörg Haider, whose rise to power put Austria in turmoil, last night resigned as leader of the country’s far-right Freedom party at its leadership meeting.
The move was seen as an attempt to take the heat off the controversial new coalition government, which has attracted international opprobrium and large demonstrations at home. Mr Haider told the party leadership meeting that he was stepping down because he did not want "to stand in the way" of the work of the new government.
The newspaper Die Presse said that Mr Haider’s decision could be a shrewd tactical move that would enable him to distance himself from unpopular government decisions such as tax increases and to position himself for the next election.
The 50-year-old populist told the magazine Format in an interview published yesterday that he still aimed to become chancellor. "That has become even more probable," he said. The 14 other EU members have downgraded relations with Austria because of the presence of Mr Haider’s party in the government. The resignation is also thought to give him more freedom to remake his tainted image.
Mr Haider, who gained notoriety in the past for pro-Nazi remarks, was not a member of the federal government and remains governor of the southern province of Carinthia. He had been portrayed as the puppet master of the new administration, despite his promises that he would not interfere in its work.
Speaking to reporters before the meeting yesterday, Peter Sichrovsky, the Freedom party’s EU representative, said Mr Haider had mentioned stepping down at the weekend. His resignation is being viewed as a bizarre turn of events, considering the huge political gains Mr Haider made in October election.
It is thought that Mr Haider could remain in charge of the party as its spiritual leader. As provincial leader, he would have more room to prepare for his life-long ambition to become chancellor.
Another reason thought to have spurred Mr Haider’s resignation was wages. Five years ago, Freedom party members signed a contract with the Austrian state saying that if they came into government, they would claim a maximum monthly salary of 60,000 Schillings (about £2,700). But since entering government, its cabinet members have said they wish to be exempt from the pledge. In fact the justice minister, Michael Kruger, has said he wanted to have a Jaguar instead of a BMW, which is the car usually given to cabinet ministers.
Mr Haider was highly critical of the threats to backtrack, saying that it would go against the spirit for which the Freedom party stands. The issue was said to be at the top of the agenda at last night’s party meeting. Other political insiders indicated that Mr Haider’s resignation may be a panic reaction to allegations within the party that he is a homosexual, which he has denied.
The leader of the opposition Social Democratic party, Alfred Gusenbauer, described the resignation as "one of Haider’s many tactical feints". In the early 90s he resigned as governor of Carinthia after making comments praising Hitler ‘s unemployment policies and made a dramatic comeback a year ago.

Fall, rise and retreat of a maverick
1991  Resigns as governor of Carinthia after controversial remarks praising employment policies of Hitler. Claims it was a smear campaign by opponents
Mid-90s  His attendance at a meeting of Waffen SS veterans is revealed
1999  Makes dramatic comeback when he is re-elected governor. He is seen to be using the regional post as a stepping stone to national government
October  His party makes dramatic gains and takes 27% of vote in national elections, breaking consensus politics for first time in 50 years. In the campaign the slogan Überfremdung (over- foreignisation) was used, a phrase used by Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels
January 2000 Talks between People’s party and Social Democrats break down. Haider and People’s party begin negotiations

February Agreement signed
Haider expresses anger at criticism from the EU, saying: ‘The fox has not even entered the chicken pen yet.’
He criticises Brussels as a land of paedophiles, and the French prime minister, Jacques Chirac, for his ‘mistakes’
In a surprise move he steps down, but is tipped to make a rapid comeback to fulfil his chancellorship dream  

The Guardian, London, 29. Februar 2000

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