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The investigation into the death of 155 skiers after a funicular train caught fire in an Alpine tunnel near Kaprun on Saturday 11 November continues. Thus far it has been impossible to determine the cause of the tragedy.
A requiem mass in memory of the victims was held in the cathedral in Salzburg on Friday 17 November. Four thousand people attended the service, among them relatives of the victims, members of the rescue teams as well as Austrian President Thomas Klestil, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Bavarian Ministerpräsident Edmund Stoiber and Slovene Prime Minister Andrej Bajuk.
Rumours of a crisis
The allegations that some Freedom Party (FPÖ) leaders both received and used confidential data on political opponents as well as opponents in the media continued to provoke rifts between the FPÖ and the People's Party (ÖVP).
After last week's conciliatory statements, the leader of the FPÖ parliamentary group Peter Westenthaler reiterated his demand on Thursday for the dismissal of Erik Buxbaum, the director of Austria's internal security services. The FPÖ accuses Buxbaum of partiality in the conduct of the investigation, but the ÖVP Interior Minister Ernst Strasser has so far repeatedly given his support to Buxbaum.
Westenthaler stated that the FPÖ was considering taking "parliamentary steps" against Buxbaum. An opinion poll published in the newsmagazine Format indicated that 49 percent of Austrians held a positive opinion of Strasser's conduct of the judicial inquiry. Fourteen percent held a negative opinion.
Nonetheless, the two parties reached a budgetary agreement on 16 November. According to the plan, a balanced ("zero deficit") budget should be reached by 2002.
Meanwhile, it is rumoured that Vice-Chancellor and Chairperson of the FPÖ Susanne Riess-Passer seeks to enlarge her power base within the party. In an interview for Format (on 16 November), she rejected the idea that Jörg Haider could leave his post as governor of Carinthia and take a position at the federal level in Vienna. She added that there would be no change at the head of the party and that it would not make any sense for Haider "to give up the presidency of the party in May and take it again in November." [Haider resigned as chair of the party in May.]
Hungarian president and the Italian prime minister visit
The new Hungarian President Frenc Madl was in Vienna on Wednesday, where he met President Klestil and Chancellor Schüssel. Madl, fomerly a university lecturer in law in Salzburg and Vienna, pointed out that EU enlargement was "not a danger for the Austrian job market." Klestil reemphasised Austria's support for Hungary's EU membership, saying, "Austria supports the accession of Hungary with deep conviction. EU enlargement is for Austria and Hungary the most important ... project of the 21st century, one to which we are fully and totally committed."
On Thursday, it was Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato's turn to hold talks with Klestil and Schüssel in Vienna. The preparation of the EU summit of Nice was the main item on the agenda.
Where is Austria?
In an unrelated item, a stamp issued by the Italian Post Office to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the former Italian Foreign Minister Gaetano Martino had to be taken out of circulation. The map which figured next to Martino's effigy on the stamp did not show Austria—apparently now part of German territory. Kurier reported the words of one Italian deputy who said, "I can understand that there is no great sympathy for Austria in Italy because of Haider, but ... simply erasing Austria from the map seems to me a bit exaggerated."
And in other news...
- A public opinion poll published on 18 November by the Neue Kronen Zeitung confirmed the decline of the Freedom Party's popularity. The Social Democrat Party leads with 31 percent (two percent less compared to the October 1999 parliamentary elections), followed by the People's Party (ÖVP) with 29 percent (a gain of two percent). The Freedom Party stands at 25 percent (a loss of two percent) and the Greens are at 12 percent (a gain of five percent).
- Gerhard Jellasitz, the candidate of the People's Party for the regional elections in Burgenland, said he is optimistic about the chances of his party for a win in December. He added that he would consult after the election with other parties to establish a government programme for the Land.
- The Austrian army will offer a financial bonus to the soldiers who volunteer as border guards in Burgenland and Lower Austria. It is hoped that up to 300 soldiers could take advantage of the opportunity.
- Austria is set to commit 2000 soldiers to the new EU rapid reaction force on 20 November.
- Ariel Muzicant, the leader of Vienna's Jewish community, criticised Wolfgang Schüssel's comments (made last week in an interview with the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post) that "the sovereignty of Austria and the Austrian state were the first victims of Hitler." Muzicant argued that this view was merely a way to avoid confronting "the direct and historical guilt of hundreds of thousands of Austrians."
- The death of a 71 year-old woman in Villach in Carinthia has raised suspicions about the possibility of BSE-related Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in Austria. An autopsy and further medical analysis are due to be conducted next week, as reported by the Kleine Zeitung.
- The Archbishop of Salzburg, Georg Eder, met John Paul II in the Vatican on Thursday. The talks focused on Eder's decision to suspend the Salzburg priest Peter Hausberger following the priest's participation in an ecumenical celebration in October.
- Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel attended on Saturday 18 November the last day of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) party congress in Munich. The other foreign leaders invited were the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, and the chairperson of the French Gaullist party, MichŔle Alliot-Marie.
- The former Social Democrat chancellor, Fred Sinowatz, who led a SPÖ-FPÖ coalition from 1983 to 1986, was admitted this week to hospital in Vienna, where he was treated for internal bleeding of the stomach.
- The leadership of the Social Democratic Party in Graz has decided that the party candidate for the local elections in 2003 will be chosen after a vote of party members during the first semester of 2001. Alfred Stingl, the Social Democratic Mayor of Graz, will not seek another mandate.
Magali Perrault, 18 November
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Today's updated headlines from Austria