Exit Haider. But only for now

The resignation of the leader of Austria's Freedom Party is just a ruse to improve his chances of ul

Jorg Haider loves the limelight. He has been bathing in it fairly constantly in recent weeks. But never more so than on the evening of Monday 28 February, when he emerged from a meeting of his party executive to announce to the massed ranks of journalists and cameras that he was giving up the chairmanship of his Freedom Party. For the time being, he would content himself with the governorship of Carinthia as his only official political position. Haider inferred that it was all very altruistic: he wanted the Freedom Party ministers in Austria's coalition to have full freedom of action without any back-seat driving from a party chairman who was outside the government. And in beating a retreat to Carinthia, he hoped that the European Union and United States might be persuaded to call off the dogs.

The trouble with this manoeuvre is Haider's lack of credibility at home or abroad. Austria's chancellor, Wolfgang Schussel, is not much more believable when he intimates that, in resigning, Haider is deferring to his pleas to stop embarrassing the government with cascades of policy pronouncements.

Haider's closest lieutenants were quick to emphasise that he will remain the Freedom Party's top dog whether or not he sits in the party chair; and, moreover, that he will continue to command their party loyalty.

Outside the smallish hard core of Freedom Party faithful, Austrians have instantly concluded that Haider's latest move can only be interpreted as yet another trick by a consummate political trickster, whose single, supreme goal is to become chancellor of Austria. Indeed, Haider's retreat comes at a critical moment, allowing him to distance himself from the unpopular fiscal measures that the coalition government had to take to reduce an unhealthy budget deficit. The resignation can be seen as a step backward, only so as to keep his hands clean and gather the ammunition to blast his way forward into the chancellorship.

"This time it is so easy to see through the stratagem that it can't even be considered a very effective trick," a political analyst told me after Haider's announcement. Had Haider decided to pass the party chairmanship to Carl-Heinz Grasser, the coalition's finance minister, it might have been possible to think that he really intended to relax his grip: among the six Freedom Party ministers, Grasser is the only one credited both with real ability and with enough political courage to act independently of the master.

But instead of Grasser, Haider has appointed as his successor the coalition government's vice-chancellor, Susanne Riess-Passer. The 39-year old Riess-Passer has always been Haider's loyal spokeswoman and unconditional supporter - and has earnt herself the unflattering nickname of "King Cobra" as a result. Her elevation only confirms that Haider, who finds her a useful marionette, intends to continue pulling the strings of the Freedom Party from behind the scenes. There is nothing in Riess-Passer's record to suggest that she would suddenly relax her embrace of her long-time hero. Even now, as party chairman, she says that she sees Haider as the real power in the party.

Meanwhile, Haider's resignation has not deterred the "Democratic Opposition" movement from carrying on its demonstrations against the Freedom Party's presence in the government. The huge, rain-sodden rally on Vienna's Heldenplatz on 19 February has been followed with demonstrations every Thursday outside the Chancellery: "We are the nation; we are the people," the banners proclaim.

The protesters want to show that significant sections of every layer of Austrian society distance themselves from the Freedom Party and aim to end its participation in Austria's government.Yet even among this organised resistance, there are some who view EU sanctions against Austria in reaction to Haider's election as counter-productive. Austrian isolation, they argue, merely plays into Haider's hands.

The influential artistic community is split. Some advocate open rebellion and the withholding of their services. One prominent playwright has already refused to have her plays staged for the duration of the "blue-black" coalition, and Gerard Mortier, the Salzburg Festival's Belgian director, has loudly denounced the new regime and threatened to leave Salzburg at the end of the coming season - a decision he has now apparently withdrawn.

Others prefer to limit dissent to open debate. At the Burgtheater, Austria's national theatre, political discussions have become routine after the daily performance. Hundreds of people come in to argue with - and even to listen to - each other, and the sessions sometimes continue until dawn. On a recent evening, Eva Nowotny, Austria's former ambassador in London and now the senior diplomat in charge of Austria's relations with the EU, warned of " the greatest crisis the country has experienced since 1945".

Austrian writers, with rare exceptions, oppose the new coalition. One faction wants the group to welcome and encourage foreign sanctions. However, the PEN club's president, Wolfgang Fischer, and several members of its praesidium are urging the world to hold its fire unless and until the Freedom Party actually undermines democracy and human rights in Austria. They fear that "the impression that the European Union is ordering Austrians how to vote could have fatal consequences" by reinforcing xenophobia and extremist nationalism.

Not so, says the foreign editor of the liberal weekly Profil. The situation now cannot be compared with the Waldheim crisis, when the campaign orchestrated by the US-based World Jewish Congress led Austria to rally round Waldheim and elect him president.

This time, foreign pressure comes primarily from the EU; and this time there is a broad-based domestic coalition ranged against Haider.

Of Austria's main newspapers, the Kronenzeitung, the largest population daily, has turned its back on Haider, whom it once supported; while Der Standard, its rival, remains Haider's most persistent critic among the quality daily papers. Only the traditionally conservative Die Presse argues that Haider deserves to be given a chance - but its circulation is small. Of Austria's two leading weeklies, News seeks to posture as a neutral, while Profil makes no secret of its anti-Haider leanings.

When the media is not reporting on and analysing the "Haider factor", they are busy speculating about Alfred Gusenbauer, the 40-year-old new leader of the Social Democrats. Does Gusenbauer have the ability to reinvigorate the party and win back the working-class votes that have strayed to the Freedom Party? Gusenbauer was a surprise choice, taken to avoid a bruising fight between two rival candidates, one from the left wing, the other from the right of the party.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been told or have read that even though 27 per cent of the electorate voted for the Freedom Party last October, 73 per cent did not vote for Haider and do not deserve to be tainted with the neo-Nazi label. Furthermore, since Schussel had denied any intention of forming a coalition with the Freedom Party, even those who voted for his party did not vote for a "blue-black" government.

The overriding sentiment seems to be: "Schussel deceived us." The chancellor has emerged as the most unpopular political figure in Austria today. And Haider, whether in the foreground or the background, remains Austria's most dangerous man - and power-broker.