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Monday, 9 September, 2002, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Far-right row topples Austrian coalition
Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel makes announcement
Schuessel's move means elections this year
Austria's governing coalition has collapsed, triggered by a bitter internal row in the far-right Freedom Party.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel announced that his conservative People's Party was pulling out of its coalition with the Freedom Party, paving the way for early elections before the end of the year.

Susanne Riess-Passer
Riess-Passer's resignation triggered the collapse
The two parties have been in coalition since 2000. The next poll was not due until October 2003.

The Freedom Party has been wracked by a row over tax cuts, sparking the resignation of three ministers, including Vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer.

The row has split the party between charismatic ex-leader Joerg Haider - who wants the tax cuts as originally planned - and the party's senior government ministers, who have accepted that the cuts need to be delayed after August's devastating floods.

The current parliament is expected to be dissolved on 19 September. Elections are likely to follow on either 17 or 24 November.

After the resignation of his ministers, Mr Schuessel could, in theory, have replaced them with other Freedom Party members.

But most Austrian media reports on Monday had predicted that he would go to the polls.

"I won't put up with this. It's over," the tabloid Kronen Zeitung quoted him as saying.

Power struggle

The row was being seen as a defining moment in the struggle for power within the Freedom Party.

The populist but highly controversial Mr Haider officially stepped down as leader in March 2000, but remains hugely popular with rank-and-file members. He has remained as governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia.

Ms Riess-Passer, who took over as party leader, had been seen as a more acceptable public face for the party. She has now resigned the leadership as well as her cabinet post.

Joerg Haider
Haider has a huge rank-and-file following
A Freedom Party convention called for 20 October is expected to elect new leaders.

Some analysts believe that Mr Haider himself will attempt to win back the leadership, so he can set the party back on a more radical course.

Mr Haider gained support for his current battle from 400 members at a party rally on Saturday, before confronting Ms Riess-Passer on Sunday.

Ms Riess-Passer said on Sunday that she had been left with no choice but to resign.

"These internal party disagreements have crippled the party and have seriously hurt the trust of the voters," she said.

"It's my view that this is the only honest way to go."

The rift between Mr Haider and Ms Riess-Passer would have seemed unthinkable in the wake of the party's election success in October 1999.

Chosen successor

Ms Riess-Passer was seen as such a Haider loyalist that she earned the nickname "king's cobra".

She was his chosen successor when he pulled out of the leadership.

But, as earlier demonstrated by Lady Thatcher and John Major in the UK, chosen successors can fail to live up to their benefactors' hopes.

The first outwards signs of a Riess-Passer/Haider divergence came in Feburary, when she appeared to criticise him for visiting Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Janet Barrie
"Susanne Reiss-Passer was the acceptable face of the Freedom Party in government"
See also:

09 Sep 02 | Europe
01 May 00 | Europe
07 Jan 02 | Europe
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