Make Austria great again: Rapid rise of Sebastian Kurz

The conservative party that 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz has reshaped in his own image finished first in Austria's national vote.

Source: Deutsche Welle
(Tanjug/AP, file)
(Tanjug/AP, file)

A look at the man behind the country's unprecedented election.

Sebastian Kurz rose to prominence in 2013, when at 27 he became the world's youngest serving foreign minister - looking practically pubescent in photo ops with counterparts of the time, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Javad Zarif.

Though small - it may only have a population the size of London's - Austria is still ahead of countries like the UK, Germany, and Canada in terms of GDP per capita according to the World Bank. Indeed, Vienna has topped Mercer's Quality of Living survey every year since 2010.

The man who would be king

Now, Kurz is angling to become chancellor of his rich and powerful country at just 31 years old. A goal that after Sunday's election results he looks destined to achieve.

Kurz has taken power of his conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP) and pushed for a snap election in October (which was then approved by parliament). He has also replaced the OVP on the ballot with the "Sebastian Kurz List."

Though all the candidates on the list are backed by the OVP, it nevertheless gives the impression that he has renamed a major political party after himself.

Kurz has also caused a stir with some of his hardline political positions, such as calls to strengthen the EU's outer borders and end NGO rescues of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea - prompting Germany's conservative Die Welt newspaper to accuse the politician of being "hard-hearted."

"He is a power-hungry neoliberal," one young voter in Vienna who asked not to be named told DW. "What does he want? The Hapsburg empire back again?"

"He's also cultivated an image as a political outsider, despite having been foreign minister for four years."

"A conservative Macron or Trudeau"

According to professor Peter Filzmaier, a political scientist with Austria's Krems and Graz universities, what Kurz has accomplished is "unprecedented in Austrian politics, but also quite logical."

"The OVP is an extremely complex organization, dependent on municipal and regional bodies," said Filzmaier. "He consolidated decision-making functions under the party leader, namely, himself. That's not to say he's given himself extreme powers, but it has given him a bigger say over who runs for the OVP at the national election."

Filzmaier also downplayed concerns that Kurz is seeking to become some sort of anti-immigrant nationalist leader in the vein of Hungary's Viktor Orban or the US' Donald Trump, stressing that the young politician is ardently pro-EU.

"He sees himself more as a conservative Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau," Filzmaier said. "He hasn't started his own party like Macron, but he has tried to make his changes in the OVP look like a new movement. And it's working. Before he took over the party's leadership in the spring, the OVP was lagging in third place at 20 percent in the polls. Now, it's in first place at over 30 percent."

Possible boon for far-right populists

Kurz's OVP had been ruling in a so-called "grand coalition" with their natural rivals, the Social Democrats (SPO) since 2007. But now, Austria's two biggest parties have both said they refuse to rule together again.

This could prove a huge boon to the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPO), which finished well on Sunday made many in the European Union quite nervous during Austria's 2016 presidential election. Although the Austrian presidency is more of a ceremonial position than a powerful one, it was still a strong sign of some of the anti-immigrant fears wrought by the 2015 refugee crisis that the FPO's candidate Norbert Hofer won the first round of the vote with 35.1 percent support. He was eventually beaten by the Green party's Alexander van der Bellen in a run-off.

"The SPO and the OVP deciding not to govern together means there is an actual chance of the FPO ending up in a governing coalition," Filzmaier said.

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