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Profile: Austria’s ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the one-time ‘Wunderkind’

"Whizz-kid" was just one of the monikers given to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz when in 2017 he became the world's youngest democratically elected leader aged 31. Four years later, as he announces his departure from politics, here's a look at his rise and fall.

Profile: Austria's ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the one-time 'Wunderkind'
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at Prater amusement park in Vienna, Austria on May 19, 2021. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

It’s been an eventful four years for Kurz, including two governments – one with the far-right and then one with the Greens – and a major corruption scandal that led him to resign from the top job in October before announcing he was fully stepping back from politics on December 2nd. 

Along with nine others, he still faces claims that government money was used in a corrupt deal to ensure positive media coverage between 2016 and 2018. He has always denied these allegations and vowed to clear his name.

‘Saint Sebastian’

Growing up in Vienna as the only child of a secretary and a teacher, Kurz became active in the ÖVP at the age of 16.

Having dropped out of his law studies to focus on politics, he first entered government in 2011 as secretary for integration, and then as foreign minister two years later, aged 27.

Full of praise for Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Kurz claimed credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016.

Surfing a wave of feeling against traditional figures in politics, Kurz wrested control of the ÖVP in 2017 and transformed it into the “Liste Kurz”, a movement centred on his own image.

READ MORE: Just how much trouble is Sebastian Kurz in? 

He swiftly axed the ÖVP’s coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), prompting snap elections in which his campaign propelled him to the top job.

The youth and dynamism his supporters credit him with are also at the fore of an official biography whose sycophantic tone was widely mocked on social media.

Passages describing how Kurz “uttered his first words at the age of 12 months” and lauding his “bravery” as an adolescent prompted critics to dismiss it as a hagiography of “St Sebastian”.

READ ALSO: Who’s who in Austrian politics?

‘Political stunt’

Kurz has stunned observers time and again. His coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) collapsed in 2019 when his junior partner became engulfed in a corruption scandal.

In the aftermath, Kurz himself became the first chancellor in Austria’s post-war history to be removed in a no-confidence vote in parliament. 

But in snap elections later that year, Kurz once again led his party to top polls, even managing to expand his support base, picking up unhappy FPÖ voters.

In order to have the necessary majority to govern, he then formed a coalition with the Greens in January 2020 – a first at a national level.

But Kurz maintained fighting immigration as one of his core promises, which caused frequent frictions with his new partners.

READ ALSO: How the Kurz corruption scandal exposes Austria’s press freedom problems

Sudden resignation

It was the Greens who finally increased the pressure on Kurz in autumn 2021. Vice Chancellor and Greens leader Werner Kogler on Friday asked the ÖVP to name another chancellor, saying Kurz was “no longer fit for office”.

Earlier this year, the Greens had stood by the chancellor’s side when prosecutors announced they were investigating Kurz for giving false testimony to a parliamentary committee in a different case

In the past, some have accused Kurz of being a “mini-dictator” and running the ÖVP as a “one-man show”.

While some of his admirers have made parallels with the similarly youthful French President Emmanuel Macron, his detractors see him more as a budding Orban.

Kurz’s boycott of the UN migration pact, welfare cuts for asylum seekers and a raft of other anti-migration measures have made him as divisive a figure as his Hungarian counterpart.

At the same time, he has been careful to present himself as pro-European and avoid any slips of the tongue — at least publicly, until a raft of compromising messages were leaked from investigation files in recent months – some of which led to the allegations against him.

On December 2nd, the former ‘Whizz Kid’ shocked some observers with the announcement he was leaving politics.

He described the last few months as “an incredibly tense time” and a “rollercoaster of emotions”. He said the recent birth of his son made him realise he no longer wanted to be in politics. In reference to the allegations against him, Kurz described himself as “neither a saint nor a criminal” but maintained that the corruption claims are false.

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POLITICS

Reader question: Can I vote in Austria’s presidential elections?

On October 9th, Austria will vote to elect a new president, but who can vote in these national elections?

Reader question: Can I vote in Austria's presidential elections?

Austria’s presidential election will take place on October 9th, with seven candidates vying to take over at the Hofburg – the official workplace of the country’s president.

According to opinion polls, the favourite to win is the current president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is running for reelection.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: Who are the seven candidates?

A presidential candidate must be an Austrian citizen, be eligible to vote in the National Assembly and be at least 35 years old on election day.

Members of ruling dynasties or families that reigned in the past are not eligible to run in the presidential election. This is to avoid a return to monarchy in Austria via the role of the Federal President.

Who can vote in these elections?

The only people allowed to vote in Austrian federal elections are Austrian citizens aged 16 or above.

That means foreigners – even those born and raised in Austria, are not entitled to choose a new president. Unless, of course, they take up Austrian citizenship (usually giving up their original citizenship).

Since Austria has a large proportion of foreigners in the population, many people will not be able to vote in these elections.

READ ALSO: ‘I pay taxes in Austria’: Anger as foreigners barred from Vienna council vote

In fact, some 18 percent of residents (or 1.4 million people) in Austria over the age of 16 do not have the right to vote because they are not citizens, with the highest concentration of ineligible people in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg.

In comparison, 20 years ago, Austria had just 580,000 people without the right to vote.

Statistics Austria data evaluated by the APA shows that around 30 percent of the voting-age population in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg are not entitled to vote. In Linz and Graz, it is about 25 percent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

However, there are some smaller communities in Austria where the number of people without the right to vote is even higher.

In Jungholz in Tyrol, 66 percent of the population are not eligible, followed by 51 percent in Mittelberg in Vorarlberg. Kittsee in Burgenland and Wolfsthal in Lower Austria also have high proportions of Slovakian residents who cannot vote.

Austrian citizenship

Currently, in Austria, if someone wants to take up citizenship via naturalisation, they must undergo an extensive and expensive process and fulfil specific criteria.

Generally, there needs to be at least ten years of lawful and uninterrupted residence in Austria. But there are exceptions for those with citizenship of an EU or EEA country, those born in Austria, or married to an Austrian, for example.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

The main hurdles, however, include having to give up any other citizenships, as Austria doesn’t allow for dual citizenship in naturalisation cases with few exceptions, and the payment of a high fee, which depends on the municipality, but could reach thousands of euros.

And though the topic of easing the requirements has come up several times in Austria, the country doesn’t seem any closer to changing its citizenship laws.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

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