Haider's sister to head party after European poll disaster

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The Independent Online

After a disastrous showing in European Parliament elections, the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom Party has moved quickly to nominate a new leader, the sister of the former party chief Jörg Haider.

After a disastrous showing in European Parliament elections, the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom Party has moved quickly to nominate a new leader, the sister of the former party chief Jörg Haider.

A hurriedly convened session of the party's executive on Tuesday nominated Ursula Haubner, 58. As the only candidate, she is to be elected at a convention of the populist party on 3 July, party officials said.

In Sunday's balloting for the European Parliament, the Freedom Party, notorious for the xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments voiced by some of its leaders, lost four of its five seats.

While its defeat was largely predicted, the extent of voter disaffection was not. The party lost 17 per cent of the vote, or half a million of its supporters. The Freedom Party has been plagued by personnel problems and internal bickering ever since Mr Haider, currently the governor of the southern Carinthia province, stepped down as party chief on 1 May 2000.

He resigned under foreign and domestic pressure, opening the way for his party to join the centre-right government led by the Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schuessel.

The participation of the far-right party in the government led the European Union to level diplomatic sanctions against Austria, which were lifted after seven months in September 2000.

It is widely believed that the election of Ms Haubner as party chief would mean that Mr Haider himself will again wield significant influence in the party - and hence in Austrian politics. Ms Haubner is currently the acting party chairwoman. She is also a deputy minister for social affairs in the government.

Ms Haubner said that her brother will be a key component of her future "team of the best brains". But Mr Haider's enhanced role is not expected to improve considerably the Freedom Party's voter share in forthcoming elections.

Many blame the party's national demise on Mr Haider, notorious for past remarks that sounded sympathetic to the Nazis and contemptuous of Jews, a visit to Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war and a friendship with Muammar Gaddafi when Libya was still an international pariah.

More recently, he has compared the President George Bush to Saddam and Adolf Hitler.

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