- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2000

Joerg Haider's resignation as Freedom Party leader of Austria gives him the best of all worlds. The charismatic leader described as "a little more than spontaneous and a little less than crazy" by one French parliamentarian, did not give up the reigns to the party Monday when he stepped down so that he wouldn't "get in the way" of the progress of the party. Instead, he paved the way for another power play.

The United States was the first to fall for his line, saying Monday that his resignation was "a step in the right direction," though it still had concerns. Now the chameleon who both praised Hitler's Waffen-SS fighters for their character and called for a strengthening of tolerance and human rights protection after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington is handing over the party leader title to Susanne Riess-Passer, who is said to be Mr. Haider's yes-man (yes-person, perhaps?) The vice-chancellor known as the "royal cobra" in the party for her serpentine political moves may put a feminine face on the leadership, but that doesn't mean she'll soften their platform.

The European Union hasn't balked. Relations on a technical level will continue to be frozen in protest of the party's presence in the coalition. But with Mr. Haider out of shooting range, it will be harder to hold him accountable for bad policy decisions, even though he still maintains considerable control over his party.

His decision to focus on his duties as governor of the southern state of Carinthia have not prevented him from toying with the idea of running for chancellor though. And as the comeback-kid of Austria, this may not be far removed from reality. As leader of the Freedom Party since 1986, he has brought the party from a political afterthought with barely five percent of the vote then to the second largest party in Austria last fall. And his previous threats to resign have not prevented him and his party from gaining power. Mr. Haider talked about resigning four times in 1998, but his party has still remained incredibly loyal to him.

"At least 50 percent of the Freedom Party is Joerg Haider," Hans Joerg Schimanek, from the Lower Austrian Freedom Party, told the Austria Press Agency.

If his party members know it, there is no doubt that Mr. Haider does. The next chancellor's election cycle is only four years away. With no direct responsibility for the party's federal agenda, he cannot be ostracized by party members if they are forced to make compromises with their center-right coalition partner the People's Party, or punished by voters if the Freedom Party does not come through with campaign promises. Stepping down for the sake of the cause? Hardly likely.

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