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Vice chancellor's resignation threatens fragile Austrian government

Austria's awkward coalition government of conservative and progressive parties has long been under stress. The resignation of the vice chancellor and finance minister spells even more trouble for the government.

Ticking clock

Time may be running out for Austria's coalition government

Austrian Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Josef Pröll announced his resignation on Wednesday, throwing his conservative party's fragile coalition government into doubt.

Pröll told a press conference in Vienna that he was stepping down from "all political offices," which also includes his position as head of the Austrian People's Party, the ÖVP.

He was hospitalized last month while skiing because of a pulmonary embolism and has been in rehabilitation since then. The blood clot could have killed him if he had not been immediately evacuated in a helicopter.

"My decision is not against politics, but for my health and my family," Pröll said. "I've talked with doctors about the risks and consequences of a pulmonary embolism ... and it's not compatible with politics.

His move wasn't entirely based on health, however. Pröll also mentioned a lack of decency on the part of politicians in his party, by which he's likely to have been referring to an EU parliament bribery scandal involving the former Interior Minister Ernst Strasser. Strasser's conduct, combined with corruption allegations against former Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, have tarnished the ÖVP's credibility.

Coalition in trouble

Pröll's good working relationship with Chancellor Werner Faymann of the center-left Social Democrats, the SPÖ, has been seen as a key ingredient of the government's stability, and his departure could deal a heavy blow to his party.

Josef Pröll

Pröll's good relationship with the chancellor was key to the government's stability

The ÖVP's "grand coalition" with the ruling SPÖ has been marked by strains, culminating in the ÖVP's 2008 decision to leave the government. Snap elections later that year resulted in both parties coming together again for the same coalition, each with fewer seats in parliament. Some have praised Pröll's reconciliation efforts in parliament, while others - including members of his own party - demand a more combative leader.

No successor lined up

It was not immediately clear who would replace Pröll in his several positions. The party leadership was to meet on Thursday to discuss his successor. Potential candidates for his replacement include Interior Minister Maria Fekter, Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger and Economy Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner.

Pröll served as agriculture minister in two previous governments between 2003 and 2008. He was seen as a favorite politician of independent voters and was popular in left-leaning Vienna.

Political analyst Peter Filzmaier said both parties must use Pröll's resignation to their advantage.

"Both governing parties are doing very badly in the polls at the moment and cannot count on a safe majority [in the next elections in 2013]" he said. "The big problem for the People's Party is that Pröll was someone who appealed to a wide range of voters."

Author: Andrew Bowen, Christian Näthler (AP, AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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