- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2002

VIENNA, Austria The vice chancellor and two other Freedom Party leaders resigned yesterday amid a rift in their far-right party, leading to possible early elections.
Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser and the party's parliamentary speaker, Peter Westenthaler, said they were resigning from their posts following a conflict with former party leader Joerg Haider, a figure known for past comments defending the Hitler era.
Mrs. Riess-Passer, who is also the Freedom Party's leader, said the conflict with Mr. Haider over control of the party made it impossible to work effectively. Mr. Haider is the governor of the southwest province of Carinthia.
The resignations were a clear victory for Mr. Haider, who has opposed the work of the ruling coalition of which the Freedom Party is a member. They also were expected to lead to early elections.
The Austria Press Agency, citing unnamed Freedom Party sources, said the center-right coalition led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's People's Party would end its work on Sept. 19, and that new elections would take place in November.
The Freedom Party will meet on Oct. 20 to elect a new leadership, Mrs. Riess-Passer said. Until then, Defense Minister Herbert Scheibner will act as party leader.
Mrs. Riess-Passer said she was forced to recognize "a motion of no confidence" from within the party ranks.
"These intra-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."
She said it was no longer possible for her and the other two to perform their duties effectively without the support of the party.
"The party must find peace," Mrs. Riess-Passer said.
The Freedom Party has been plagued for months by a conflict over who is in control: Mrs. Riess-Passer, the elected leader, or Mr. Haider, a charismatic figure who led the party to popularity.
In 2000, after a surprise electoral showing by the Haider-led Freedom Party, the European Union slapped temporary sanctions on Austria to protest the role in government of a party viewed as beyond the pale of accepted Western norms.
Under Mrs. Riess-Passer, the party has sought to ditch its image as a home to racists and anti-Semites, although some of its officials continue to draw fire for what critics say are xenophobic comments.
The recent party conflict has centered on a government proposal to reform the tax system in 2003 to benefit low-income groups.

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