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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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AUSTRIAN CITIZENSHIP

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

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

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from € 1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.

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