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Austrian chancellor quits while ahead

When Franz Vranitzky, Austria's outgoing Chancellor, first came to power more than 10 years ago, he was dubbed the "pin-stripe socialist", a reference to his favoured form of dress after many years as one of the country's leading bankers.

More recently, the epithets have been harder-hitting. "Dead Man Walking" was how one magazine described him after his Socialist Party's disastrous showing in elections to the European parliament last October which saw it slip to less than 30 per cent - just two percentage points ahead of Jorg Haider's far-right Freedom Party.

Such attacks hurt. And it was clearly with some relief that Mr Vranitzky announced his long-predicted resignation on Saturday - effectively getting out while he was still (just about) on top.

At a press conference yesterday, Mr Vranitzky, the second longest-serving European leader behind Germany's Helmut Kohl, said he believed 10 years in power was long enough and that, at the age of 59, he wanted to make way for a younger generation.

Although the resignation had been widely forecast, it still came as a shock to Austrians, many of whom feel grateful to Mr Vranitzky for being a calming influence in a decade of unprecedented change and who think his departure could herald the end of an era.

In the short-term, little is likely to change. Mr Vranitzky's designated successor, Viktor Klima, the 49-year-old Finance Minister, is set to pursue similar policies while setting about reviving the Socialists' flagging political fortunes. The Socialists' coalition partners, the conservative People's Party (OVP), were also quick to indicate that they want the current arrangement to continue.

Mr Vranitzky said his main achievement had been steering Austria into the European Union in 1995, thereby ending decades of isolation during the Cold War. He said he also took pride in turning around the economy, transforming it from its depressed state in the 1970s into one of the strongest in Europe.

Internationally, one of the main things for which Mr Vranitzky will be remembered is his speech in 1991 in which he became the first Austrian leader ever to acknowledge publicly that many of his countrymen had welcomed and willingly worked for the Nazis following the 1936 Anschluss.

The last few years of Mr Vranitzky's chancellorship have been marred by ever-fiercer disputes with the OVP over what to do about the country's growing budget deficit and the impression he gave of having run out of steam and ideas.

He has also had to suffer the indignity of watching on as Mr Haider's star has risen and risen. Mr Vranitzky admitted yesterday that he had underestimated Mr Haider and that he should have done more to "unmask his [Haider's] strategy of demonising human beings".

Mr Haider sounded a more ominous note: "My prophecy that I would still be working for Austria while he [Vranitzky] would be long gone has come true." Reiterating his prediction that he will be Chancellor by 2000, Mr Haider said Mr Vranitzky's resignation was "one more important step in that direction".