VIENNA -- Austria, aching from the persistent controversy over President Kurt Waldheim's World War II record as a German Army lieutenant, has for the first time begun debating seriously whether he should resign.
Growing public dismay over what is seen as Waldheim's lack of credibility regarding his past, and intense worry over the damage that he has caused to Austria's image abroad, have thrust the resignation issue to the forefront of national politics 18 months after Waldheim's election.
While opinion here is divided over whether Waldheim can survive, the prevailing view is that he will keep his largely ceremonial post unless new evidence comes to light that implicates him directly in committing war crimes, according to government and party officials, professors, journalists and diplomats.
The president still enjoys strong support from the leadership of the conservative People's Party, the nation's second largest party and a member of the ruling coalition.
On the other hand, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky is coming under increasing pressure from his Socialist Party to seek to oust Waldheim.
With or without a resignation, the issue has poisoned Austrian politics for years to come, according to Austrian and foreign analysts.
If Waldheim resigns, it would trigger a bitter backlash from his supporters that would fuel anti-Semitic and antiforeign feelings here, the analysts say. The New York-based World Jewish Congress played a leading role in making public the allegations against Waldheim.
If he serves out the remaining 4 1/2 years of his term, then Austria would continue to be plagued by the image that its chief of state, the symbol of the nation, has a blemished past.
"When you go abroad now and tell people you're an Austrian, the first thing they mention is Waldheim, Nazis. This is not going to come to an end quickly," a government official said, describing a widely felt sentiment.
Waldheim repeatedly has said that he has no intention of resigning. Most observers predict that he would cling to his office, even without outside support, rather than step down and thus appear to confirm that he had done wrong.
Attention has focused on the possibility of Waldheim's resignation in part because of two upcoming events: the release of a report within the next two months by an international historians' commission that is studying the evidence against the president, and the 50th anniversary in March of the absorption of Austria into Hitler's Germany.
Austrians are particularly upset because Waldheim has received no invitations to make state visits to any of the leading western countries that are Austria's best friends. One of the president's few official duties is to serve as a good-will ambassador.
In April, the U.S. Justice Department formally barred Waldheim from visiting the United States as a private citizen. It said there was sufficient evidence to suspect him of involvement in Nazi war crimes.
The two principal accusations against Waldheim have been that, while he served in a military intelligence unit in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945, he was involved in deportations of Greek Jews to Auschwitz and in brutal reprisals against Yugoslav partisans and Allied prisoners.
Waldheim repeatedly has denied that he was involved in committing war crimes, and he has denied even knowing about the deportation of Greek Jews. His position is that he was a paper-pusher who received military reports but had no command authority.
It is widely assumed here that Waldheim, a former secretary general of the United Nations, would be driven from office only if dramatic new evidence against him is made public. Press leaks originating in the government-funded, six-member historians' commission have indicated that no "smoking gun" has been found.
The commission may report that Waldheim handled Army reports or relayed orders related to war crimes or that he was more deeply involved in such activities than he has acknowledged, according to political and diplomatic sources.
But it is not certain that such revelations would be sufficient to force him from office, they and other analysts said.
"He won't resign, because the only thing that could force him out of office would be evidence that he personally committed war crimes, and that will not come up," a high-ranking conservative politician, who supports Waldheim, said.
There are signs, however, that public opinion has begun shifting against Waldheim.
An opinion poll published this month in Wiener magazine showed for the first time that a plurality of Austrians said Waldheim should resign if the historians' commission decides that he knew about war crimes despite his claims to the contrary. Fifty percent of those polled said he should resign under those circumstances, while 35 percent said he should not. The rest were undecided.
The resignation issue also has become entangled in Austrian party politics.
The conservative People's Party made Waldheim its candidate in last year's presidential campaign, and its leaders' political futures are closely linked to the president's.
Nevertheless, informal discussions already have taken place between the People's Party and the dominant Socialist Party over how a successor to Waldheim might be chosen, according to authoritative political sources.
At the Socialists' national congress in October, one-third of the delegates voted for a resolution calling on Waldheim to step down. The resolution was defeated only because of Chancellor Vranitzky's opposition.
Vranitzky has emphasized that his top priority is to defend Austria's democratic institutions. That means that he must defend the man who won 54 percent of the vote in a fair election after virtually all of the allegations about his wartime record already had been aired.
Vranitzky is known to be privately very unhappy over Waldheim, however. The chancellor said several months ago that he had planned to urge Waldheim to resign after the president had served a year or 18 months in office, according to two sources who said separately that they heard the chancellor make the statement. The sources spoke on condition that they not be identified.
Vranitzky said he had intended to tell Waldheim his presidency was unsuccessful because he was unable to make state visits, the sources said.
But Vranitzky said he had to change his plans after Pope John Paul II received Waldheim at the Vatican in June, the sources said. Since then, Waldheim also has made state visits to Jordan and Pakistan.
Vranitzky's press secretary, Karl Krammer, denied the account.