Austria's Chancellor determined to hang on

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The Independent Online
AUSTRIA'S battered Chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, yesterday confirmed his intention to try to form a new government, despite the drubbing his party suffered in Sunday's general election.

Speaking in Vienna, Mr Vranitzky said he had contemplated stepping down after support for his Social Democratic Party slumped to an all-time low of just 35 per cent - but that colleagues had persuaded him to stay on.

Mr Vranitzky is today set to meet President Thomas Klestil, who is likely to ask him to remain as Chancellor pending a formal coalition agreement between the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party.

The likely continuation of the alliance between the two parties that have ruled Austria since the Second World War lent a slightly unreal air of stability to yesterday's proceedings. 'On the surface, everything remains as it was,' commented Gerfried Sperl of the Vienna daily Der Standard. 'On a deeper level, there is a distinct nervousness.'

That nervousness, as ever, focused on the person of the demagogic Jorg Haider, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, deemed by many to have been the real victor in Sunday's poll.

Despite his numerous gaffes in the past - including an infamous reference to Hitler's commendable employment policies - Mr Haider's stormy rise appeared to be continuing unchecked. His party's 22.6 per cent showing on Sunday, achieved on the back of strong anti-foreigner rhetoric and a pledge to clamp down on crime, was its highest ever. And Mr Haider's oft-repeated aim of becoming the federal Chancellor by 1998 suddenly appeared to have come within his grasp.

'Once again, Mr Haider gambled and once again he won,' said Anton Pelinka, Professor of Political Science at Innsbruck University. 'The old era of consensus-style politics has definitely come to an end. The field is now much more open. But that, of course, carries risks.'

Not all commentators saw the break with Austria's cosy - complacent, according to critics - post-war past as a bad thing. The two main parties had 'taken possession of the state and with their party machines wielded more influence than was healthy in a democracy,' declared Karl Heinz Ritschel of the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Others took heart from the successes enjoyed by the smaller Green and Liberal Forum opposition parties, welcoming their strengthened presence in parliament and the fact that they would now have to be consulted on constitutional change following the loss of the two-thirds majority previously held by the two main parties.

Some even thought the election debacle would galvanise the ruling parties into enacting long-needed reforms and inject a little dynamism into their stale approach. As Vienna's mayor, Helmut Zilk, an influential Social Democrat, said: 'This is our very last chance.'

It was hardly the sort of fighting talk likely to deter Mr Haider, who told his delirious supporters that he was biding his time. While ruling out any immediate bid to join the ruling coalition, Mr Haider left no doubt as to his long-term strategy: 'We will be ready for power in 1998.'

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