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Leaders on Austria's Right Bow Out of Party

Politics: Three top members of the Freedom Party resign amid a struggle for control with controversial former leader Joerg Haider.

September 09, 2002|From Associated Press

VIENNA — Austria's vice chancellor and two other Freedom Party leaders resigned Sunday amid a rift in their far-right party, a move expected to lead to early elections.

Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser and the party's parliamentary speaker, Peter Westenthaler, said they were resigning after a conflict with former party leader Joerg Haider, a controversial figure known for past comments defending the Hitler era.

Riess-Passer, who is also the Freedom Party's leader, said the conflict with Haider over control of the party made it impossible to work effectively. Haider is governor of the southern province of Carinthia.

The Austria Press Agency, citing unnamed Freedom Party sources, said the current center-right coalition led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's People's Party would end its work Sept. 19 and that new elections would take place in November.

The Freedom Party will meet Oct. 20 to elect a new leadership, Riess-Passer said. Until then, Defense Minister Herbert Scheibner will act as party leader.

Riess-Passer said she was forced to recognize "a motion of no confidence" from within the party ranks. "These intraparty disagreements have crippled the party and have seriously hurt the trust of the voters," she said.

She said it was no longer possible for her and the other two to perform their duties effectively without the support of the party.

The Freedom Party has been plagued for months by a conflict over who is in control: Riess-Passer, the elected leader, or Haider, a charismatic figure who led the party to popularity.

In 2000, after a surprise electoral showing by the Haider-led Freedom Party, the European Union slapped temporary sanctions on Austria to protest the role in government of a party viewed as beyond the pale of accepted Western norms.

Under Riess-Passer, the Freedom Party has sought to ditch its image as a home to racists and anti-Semites, although some of its officials continue to draw fire for what critics say are xenophobic comments.

The recent party conflict has centered on a government proposal to reform the tax system in 2003 to benefit low-income groups.

Because of the vast damage caused by recent record floods, the governing coalition has said the nation can no longer afford to pass the reform next year.

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