Austria's Sebastian Kurz: from 'whizz-kid' politician to deposed leader

One and a half years later, Sebastian Kurz has been forced from office over a scandal that already brought down his government and now finds himself the holder of some less positive records. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

One and a half years later, Sebastian Kurz has been forced from office over a scandal that already brought down his government and now finds himself the holder of some less positive records. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

‘Whizz-kid’, ‘Basti Fantasti’ and ‘Messiah’ — just some of the monikers given to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz when in 2017 he formed a coalition with the far-right to become the world’s youngest leader at just 31 years of age.

One and a half years later, he himself has been forced from office over a scandal that already brought down his government and now finds himself the holder of some less positive records.

He becomes the country’s shortest-serving chancellor, as well as the first in Austria’s post-war history to be removed in a no-confidence vote.

But despite this setback, Kurz is currently in a strong position to profit from snap elections which have been called due to the crisis and are expected in the autumn.

In European elections on Sunday, his People’s Party (OeVP) won 34.9% of the vote overall, up almost eight points on the last such vote in 2014 and a record for any Austrian party since the country joined the European Union in 1995.

‘One-man show’ 

The only child of a secretary and a teacher, Kurz had joined the OeVP’s youth wing in 2003.

As its chief, he had drawn ridicule with a 2010 council election campaign featuring the slogan “Schwarz macht geil”, or “Black makes you hot” that saw Kurz posing with scantily-clad girls on top of a black Hummer, the “hot-o-mobile”, and distributing black condoms.

But despite this blunder, the former law student — he never finished his degree — enjoyed a meteoric rise, becoming secretary of integration in 2011 and foreign minister two years later, aged 27.

In May 2017 he then undertook a swift and effective power grab within the OeVP, and brought down the unhappy “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats (SPOe).

In the early election that followed, Kurz fronted a campaign as slick as his trademark gelled-back hair under a slogan of “putting Austrians first”.

He claimed credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016 and rebranded the OeVP and its black party colour as a turquoise “movement”, tough on immigration and easy on taxes.

The strategy worked, propelling the sluggish OeVP to pole position and Kurz to near-rock star status with observers saying there had not been such euphoria over an Austrian politician since Joerg Haider, the charismatic but controversial far-right leader who died in 2008.

‘Chancellor of silence’ 

Under Kurz’s coalition, the government passed numerous measures to crack down on immigration, such as tightening access to apprenticeships for asylum-seekers and effectively cutting child benefits for foreigners who work in Austria but whose children live in poorer countries.

It also vaunted its agenda of tax cuts and raised the maximum working day to 12 hours, in what was seen as a concession to businesses.

But even before the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal that rocked his far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) coalition partner and collapsed the government, there were signs that all was not well.

Some critics within the OeVP accused Kurz — a private politician who is not often seen in public with long-term girlfriend Susanne — of being a “mini-dictator” running the party as a “one-man show”.

The government’s sharp turn to the right even prompted former OeVP leader Reinhold Mitterlehner to accuse Kurz of putting Austria on the path to being an “authoritarian democracy”.

Those close to Kurz dismissed that as sour grapes from the man he deposed as party leader.

From the opposition came criticism that he was a “chancellor of silence” who was too indulgent towards a seemingly endless catalogue of incidents pointing to extremist sympathies in the far-right’s base.

He insisted in his announcement ending the coalition that the FPOe’s scandalous antics had been “hard to swallow”, but critics say he must bear responsibility for bringing the far-right into government in the first place.

Kurz will now be hoping that voters will hand him a strong personal mandate in the autumn, which will leave him less beholden to the far-right.

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