VIENNA — Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider has unexpectedly resigned as leader of the Freedom Party, but friends and enemies saw the decision as a tactical move aimed at helping him to become chancellor in the future.
The 50-year-old populist firebrand announced late Monday that he was handing over the party leadership to Susanne Riess-Passer, vice chancellor in a 3-week-old center-right coalition led by conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.
Haider, best known for controversial remarks playing down the crimes of the Nazis--for which he repeatedly has apologized--said he wanted to help the new government, which has been isolated by Austria's 14 European Union partners, function smoothly and to demonstrate that Freedom Party ministers were not simply puppets under his control.
He will remain governor of southern Carinthia province.
"I want to make clear that I am not running away from national politics, just making a new constellation in our party leadership," Haider told a late-night news conference.
Die Presse newspaper said Haider's decision was a shrewd move that will enable him to distance himself from unpopular government decisions such as planned tax increases and position himself for the next election, due within four years.
Thomas Prinzhorn, deputy speaker of parliament and the Freedom Party's leading candidate in last October's election, appeared to confirm that view, saying, "It is a step backward, which is necessary in order to make two solid steps forward."
Austria's opposition Social Democrats called the resignation a sham.