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Austrian Chancellor to Form New Government - 2003-02-21

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel is starting negotiations with the far-right Freedom Party, the FPO, to form a new government. Mr. Schussel's Christian Democrats are taking a major risk in seeking a renewed alliance with the FPO, dominated by populist Joerg Haider.

Three months after his landslide election victory, Christian Democratic Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel has opted for a continuation of a center-right coalition with the controversial Freedom Party. Since November, Mr. Schuessel has explored the possibilities for a coalition with both the Social Democrats and the environmental Greens, but with no success.

A party executive meeting of Mr. Schuessel's OVP was unable to agree unanimously on the decision to link up with the FPO. Powerful state governors, as well as the head of the party's business wing, voted against it, or abstained. Their argument was that the FPO was too unstable, and they warned Mr. Schuessel that he alone bears the responsibility for this step.

Internal divisions in the Freedom Party triggered the election last year, and led to the collapse of its support at the polls from 27 percent to just 10 percent. Since then, the party has remained bitterly divided, with a hard core remaining dedicated to Joerg Haider, who once praised the employment policies of Adolf Hitler. The party is formally run by Herbert Haupt.

Mr. Haider's followers have even started a fan club run by right-winger Ewald Stadler, who received thunderous applause at the last party conference.

He says, "Joerg Haider is not here today, but I can tell you from here that this is the party of Joerg Haider. Even under Herbert Haupt, it will stay the party of Joerg Haider."

Many in the OVP fear that Mr. Haider is just biding time before exacting revenge on Mr. Schuessel, whom he blames for the defeat of the Freedom Party. They fear that this coalition will also come to an abortive end.

Mr. Haider stirred controversy last year meeting with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. He has attacked what he calls the "imperialist" policies of the United States against Iraq.

When the last center-right coalition was formed, in 2000, the European Union for a short time imposed sanctions against Austria.