Austria looked set for early elections last night after Susanne Riess-Passer, the Vice-Chancellor, and two other ministers from the Freedom Party resigned from the government coalition amid a power struggle inside their own ranks.
Ms Riess-Passer, leader of the party, Karl-Heinz Grasser, the Finance Minister, and Peter Westenthaler, the party's parliamentary speaker, quit because of a conflict with Jörg Haider. The resignations were a clear victory for Mr Haider, the party's controversial former leader and current governor of the south-western province of Carinthia.
Mr Haider, a far rightist who has opposed the work of the government coalition, gave up the chairmanship of the Freedom Party in March 2000 but could now return to national politics. His comeback could throw up a new barrier to Austrian approval for the European Union's historic expansion into central and eastern Europe.
The current centre-right coalition between Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's People's Party and the Freedom Party's Ms Riess-Passer had agreed Austria would back the addition of about 10 former Soviet bloc countries to the EU in 2004.
Analysts said Mr Haider was likely to demand the Czech Republic shut its Temelin nuclear plant near the Austrian border and withdraw post-World War Two decrees that cast ethnic Germans out of the country before Austria would ratify Czech membership. The Czech government has refused both demands already.
The Freedom Party has been hampered for months by a wrangle between Ms Riess-Passer, the elected leader, and Mr Haider, a controversial but charismatic figure. Mr Haider, furious at coalition plans to postpone tax cuts for low and medium earners, had met 400 party members and yesterday delivered an ultimatum to the leadership.
Ms Riess-Passer said she was forced to recognise 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." Freedom Party sources said the current centre-right coalition would end its work on 19 September and that elections would take place in November, sources said. Elections are not due until October 2003. Opinion polls show the coalition does not have a majority.
The Freedom Party would meet on 20 October to elect a new leadership, Ms Riess-Passer said. Until then, Herbert Scheibner, the Defence Minister, will act as party leader.
Chancellor Schüssel, who supports Ms Riess-Passer, has said he would re-examine the centre-right alliance between his People's Party and the Freedom Party if the leadership of the latter changed.
On Saturday, Mr Haider announced he might return to the national government's executive committee.He left the committee in February after sparking outrage by meeting President Saddam Hussein.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies