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Austria's Far-Right Haider May Be Out of National Politics--for Now

September 19, 2002|From Times Wire Services

VIENNA — Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party chose a low-profile minister to become its leader after Haider declined to seek a return to his old post, officials said Wednesday.

Transport Minister Mathias Reichhold, 45, yielded to calls from leaders of the party three days before its convention and a week after its pullout from a government coalition, which forced coming elections.

"Reichhold is the right man at the right time in the right place," said Martin Strutz, a member of the party executive committee that nominated the organic farmer.

Reichhold had resigned his government post, as did party members Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer and Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, amid a dispute with Haider, who headed a grass-roots revolt over a delayed tax cut.

The resignations led to the collapse of the 2 1/2-year-old government coalition between the Freedom Party and the conservative People's Party.

Haider on Saturday quit the race for the party leadership, saying his family was threatened because of his campaign against the government's plan to spend $1.8 billion for new fighter planes.

Party officials had agreed last week to make Haider the leader, a position he left in 2000 when the Freedom Party joined the government as its junior partner.

Analysts say Reichhold's candidacy appeared to seal, for the moment at least, Haider's exit from national politics.

If so, it would mark the demise of Austria's most enigmatic politician in recent years. The populist leader, who led the Freedom Party to a second-place finish in 1999 elections, drew international ire for flattering comments he made about the Nazi regime, remarks for which he later apologized.

Haider has repeatedly declared his withdrawal in spats with his party only to return at their urging. But there is little time for an about-face before the convention elects Reichhold as chairman.

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