Austrian Government Collapses, New Elections Called | Current Affairs | DW | 10.09.2002
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Current Affairs

Austrian Government Collapses, New Elections Called

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said a fight staged by far-right politician Joerg Haider with members of his own party made it impossible to continue the coalition. Elections could be as soon as November, a year early.

Joerg Haider is responsible for the coalition's fall

Joerg Haider is responsible for the coalition's fall

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel announced on Monday that his conservative People’s Party would end its coalition with Joerg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party, and called for new elections as soon as possible.

The move followed weekend resignations by Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer and Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, both members of the far-right Freedom Party. Riess-Passer also resigned as party chairwoman. On Monday, fellow party member and Transportation Minister Mathias Reichhold also stepped down.

The actions were part of an ongoing dispute with Haider over the implementation of planned tax cuts. The Freedom Party’s top government ministers had sided with Chancellor Schuessel, who said that the tax cuts needed to be delayed so the country could cope with damage from the severe flooding that swept through Austria and much of central Europe in August. In Austria, 8 people died in the disaster, and damage is estimated at 6.7 billion euros ($6.6 billion).

Haider resigned under worldwide criticism in 2000

Political analysts said the resignations of Riess-Passer and her colleagues signal Haider’s return to the center of Austrian politics. Haider holds no official leadership position in his party or in the ruling coalition, having given up his party chairmanship in March 2000 amid intense international criticism of his ultra-conservative views.

He remains, however, state governor of Carinthia, and observers say the charismatic populist is favored to reclaim his party’s leadership position at the October 20 convention. If this happens, Haider is expected to direct the Freedom Party on a more radical course.

In the meantime, Schuessel said he would recommend that parliament be dissolved at the earliest possible date, slated to be September 19. New elections could be held as early as November, a full year ahead of schedule.

Haider took a party that garnered just 5 percent in the polls to the second strongest strongest in Austria. In 1999, it received 27 percent of the vote based on an anti-immigrant, anti-European Union platform. But international boycotts and criticism followed and forced Haider to turn over the reins to Riess-Passer in order for the party to become part of the coalition government.

Opposition Social Democrats lead the polls

Polls show that if elections were held now, Schuessel’s People’s Party would get about 29 percent of the vote and the Freedom Party under 20 percent. Opposition Social Democrats lead with about 37 percent and the Greens have about 12 percent.

“What’s happening here is what Haider has been aiming at for months, a complete change in the direction of the Freedom Party,” Innsbruck University political scientist Fritz Plasser told Reuters. “Haider wants to present issues that will mobilize his voters.”

Haider has also been critical in recent months of Riess-Passer’s support of European Union expansion in to Eastern and Central Europe. Haider is strongly opposed and is likely to include this as one of the main platform issues should be regain the party’s leadership.

On Sunday, Haider delivered an ultimatum from some 400 delegates at a party convention to Riess-Passer via Haider. Rather than be bullied by Haider, she and her ally Grasser resigned.

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