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Europe

Austria's Haider Elected Head of New Party

Austria's controversial politician firebrand Jörg Haider has been elected president of a new political party. It's a gamble that could put the country's ruling coalition at risk.

New party, same Haider

Haider was elected unanimously bar one abstention by the 564 delegates present for the launch of the Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ), born following a split in his Freedom Party (FPÖ), the junior partner in Austria's government coalition.

Once the poster boy of the Freedom Party, Haider recently dismissed it as "an important historical relic," saying it was time to focus on domestic issues such as jobs, families and cultural identity.

Analysts say that by distancing themselves from the extreme-right members of the former FPÖ, Haider and his new alliance might win back voters lost because of the party's divisions and harsh policies.

New election?

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and his wife, Krista Schüssel

Over the weekend, Austria's chief opposition party called for an early general election in the light of a split within the governing conservative coalition headed by Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.

"Imagine what would happen if the government imploded just before or, worse, during Austria's presidency of the European Union" due to start on January 1, Alfred Gusenbauer, leader of the Social Democrats (SPÖ), told a party conference in Vienna.

Schüssel no longer has an overall majority in the country's parliament since Haider split from the far-right FPÖ which he founded. The FPÖ has been in coalition with Schüssel's conservative People's Party (ÖVP) since 2000.

During his departure from the FPÖ, Haider took at least nine of the FPÖ's members of parliament with him. Haider has indicated he wants the coalition to continue in office. Schüssel needs the backing of 13 of the 18 FPÖ members in the lower house of parliament to maintain his majority.

Reasons for worry

But, in a newspaper interview published Saturday the FPÖ's new leader Heinz-Christian Strache said the seven members of parliament who were still loyal to him would from now on vote "with their hearts and conscience" and suggested that "the government has serious reasons to be worried."

Schüssel said last week that he has received sufficient "guarantees" from the FPÖ's 18 members of parliament and its three ministers and two junior ministers to feel that he can work with them until Austria's next national elections due to be held in the autumn of 2006.

Jörg Haider announces in April that he and his supporters have broken with the Freedom Party and presents his new party "Alliance for Austria's Future" (BZÖ).

But the radicals in the ranks of the FPÖ who have refused to defect to the BZÖ could make life difficult for Haider.

The opposition Greens and Socialists have been calling for early elections, and a poll conducted by the OGM institute found that 57 percent of the population would like to vote before 2006.

"If the 18 deputies of the BZÖ or the FPÖ choose to act in rational way, the coalition could endure until 2006. But all depends on whether they behave rationally or not," political analyst Anton Pelinka said.

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