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Tensions Rise in Austrian Freedom Party - 2002-01-24

The Austrian government's right wing Freedom Party has challenged its larger conservative coalition partner to hold early elections amid a political row over European Union (EU) enlargement and a nuclear power plant in the neighboring Czech Republic. The tensions come after the Freedom Party organized a petition demanding that Austria veto Czech membership in the EU unless it closes the plant.

Encouraged by the results of its petition against the Czech nuclear power plant, the right wing Freedom Party urged Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel to make clear his views on the future of the European Union.

Over 900,000 Austrians signed the Freedom Party's petition demanding the government veto Czech efforts to join the EU, unless it shuts down the Temelin station, located about 60 kilometers from the Austrian border. However, Austrian Chancellor Schuessel has refused to obstruct EU enlargement, saying it was the "central point" of his government's program.

EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen dismissed the petition saying that it shows concern about nuclear energy, but that Austrians understand it is not in their interest to block the process of European Union enlargement.

Although the petition results mean that the Austrian parliament will have to debate the issue, Chancellor Schuessel's People's Party as well as the opposition Greens and Social Democrats have all said they will not support the veto threat. The leader of the Freedom Party, Joerg Haider, warned reporters Wednesday that the political row with his conservative coalition partners could force early elections in the next few months.

Analysts suggest that Mr. Haider is using the issue to gain support for his political party. Mr. Haider, provincial governor of Carinthia, is not a member of the government and no longer formally leads the Freedom Party, after coming under international criticism for what some consider his controversial views. But he sits on the policy-making committee in Vienna and is by some accounts the undisputed de facto-leader of the party.

Commentators note, however, that even after possible new elections, Mr. Haider's supporters will likely be forced to renew their cooperation with the People's Party, because it is the only political force that is ready to cooperate with the Freedom Party.

Environmentalists and the opposition parties seem angry that the Freedom Party has hijacked what they consider to be a legitimate issue. They point out that the Soviet designed nuclear power plant at Temelin, which was due to be fully operational later this year, has been plagued by technical glitches, amid concern about safety standards.

The Czech Republic's Minister of Trade and Industry, Miroslva Gregr, offered his resignation earlier this month after he failed to meet a deadline to make the nuclear plant's second power unit ready for test preparations by the end of last year. However, Prime Minister Milos Zeman refused to accept the offer and suggested the minister had done his best.

The developments in Austria have caused a war of words between Austria and the Czech Republic. Czech Prime Minister Zeman called Mr. Haider a "populist pro-Nazi politician who understands nothing but talks about everything." Mr. Haider accused the Czech Prime Minister of clinging to communism.