This is Sebastian Kurz: Austria's 'messiah' to his fans, 'mini-dictator' to detractors

AFP - [email protected]
This is Sebastian Kurz: Austria's 'messiah' to his fans, 'mini-dictator' to detractors
Kurz holds a press conference after being appointed as head of the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) on May 14th 2017 in Vienna. Photo: AFP

History could remember 30-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria's own version of Emmanuel Macron by becoming its youngest ever chancellor -- or as the man who let the far-right back into power.


With his slicked-back hair and big blue eyes, the fresh-faced foreign minister has been hailed as a "messiah" whose planned overhaul of the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) could help revive its fortunes and even lead to victory in a snap election on October 15th.

The early parliamentary ballot was triggered after Kurz took over the ÖVP's reins from chief Reinhold Mitterlehner last weekend and pulled the plug on the decade-long unhappy coalition with the Social Democrats (SPÖ).

READ ALSO: Austria heads for snap elections

Hugely popular among ordinary Austrians -- "The perfect son-in-law," gushed one member of the public in a recent TV interview -- the media-savvy Kurz announced he would enter the race with an independent list of hand-picked candidates also from outside the party.

The ÖVP's name won't even figure on the ballot paper, which instead will just read "Sebastian Kurz -- the New People's Party".

The decision has prompted comparison with the centrist Macron who, at 39, was recently crowned France's youngest-ever president after launching his En Marche! (On the Move!) movement and beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

READ ALSO: Macron's party stretches lead in polls as new government meets for first time

By banking on his personal popularity to bring electoral success, Kurz is "clearly attempting to model himself on President Macron, another young politician who has torn up the existing order," according to Britain's The
Telegraph newspaper.

The list is part of radical measures introduced by the trailblazing Kurz to revive the ÖVP, which is languishing in third place behind the SPÖ and the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) in opinion polls.

Like other traditional parties in Europe, the SPÖ and ÖVP have haemorrhaged voters over rising unemployment and a huge influx of migrants.

To reverse the trend, the Viennese-born wunderkind has demanded -- and obtained -- complete control over key party decisions.

"Things can't continue the way they are now. Swapping heads won't be enough, the ÖVP has to completely change," Kurz, tieless and with the top button of his crisp shirt undone, told journalists in Vienna after his
nomination on May 14th.

Some Austrian commentators speak of a "revolution" that will shake the ÖVP, founded in 1945, to its very core.

"What's he doing is unique in Europe -- he's trying to combine a traditional party with the image of a new movement, a kind of hybrid party if you will," analyst Peter Filzmaier told AFP.

'Prince Ironheart'

Despite his young age, Kurz is an old hand at the political game.

Brought up in the blue-collar Meidling district, the son of a teacher and a technician joined the ÖVP's youth branch in 2003, later becoming its chief.

Not immune to faux-pas, he drew ridicule with a 2010 city council election campaign featuring the slogan "Schwarz macht geil", or "Black makes you hot", in reference to the ÖVP's party colour.

As part of the drive, Kurz posed surrounded by skimpily-clad women on top of a black Hummer -- the "hot-o-mobile" -- and distributed black condoms.

This PR glitch notwithstanding, his rise to the top has been meteoric.

Aged 24, Kurz dropped his law studies in 2011 to become state secretary of integration. Two years later, he was appointed the European Union's youngest foreign minister.

The polished orator quickly crushed jokes about his inexperience by confidently hosting Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna and chairing the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

In Europe's refugee crisis, which unravelled in 2015, he emerged as one of the strongest critics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy and the EU's mooted migrant deal with Turkey.

Kurz's successful push to close the so-called western Balkan migrant trail won him praise from Hungary's populist firebrand leader Viktor Orban -- and the moniker "Prince Ironheart" from critics.

News website Politico has named him one of this year's most influential Europeans while US Time magazine placed him on its "New Generation Leaders" list in March.

Dangerous game

Domestically, some critics have denounced Kurz for behaving like a "mini-dictator" running a "one-man show".

Some observers also fear his political manoeuvring could see the FPÖ, whose candidate narrowly failed to be elected president in December, enter government.

Although Kurz's arrival has dampened FPÖ boss Heinz-Christian Strache's chances of becoming chancellor, the far-right is almost guaranteed a coalition spot.

READ ALSO: Leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party calls for 'zero immigration'

Kurz has not excluded sharing power with the FPÖ, which had already formed a much-maligned alliance with the ÖVP in 2000, sparking international outcry.

For renowned political expert Anton Pelinka, it remains "unclear" what the prodigy really stands for.

"Either he's keeping his cards close to his chest for tactical reasons or he doesn't stand for any specific policies," Pelinka told AFP.

By AFP's Nina Lamparski



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