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Comeback Kurz? Why you shouldn’t count Austria’s ex-chancellor out just yet

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz
Down but not out: former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP
Diplomat Alexander Schallenberg was named Austria's new leader on Monday after Sebastian Kurz quit the role over corruption allegations, but it's unlikely this is the last we'll see of the man dubbed the Whizz Kid.

Media and other observers have widely declared that Kurz’s replacement – named by the conservative himself – is just a place holder while the 35-year-old fights the graft accusations that engulfed him last week. 

“Kurz remains in a position of strength and dreams of returning to the post of chancellor,” analyst Patrick Moreau said.

Kurz – once touted as a “whizz kid” who became the world’s youngest democratically elected leader in 2017 at age 31 – will continue to head his People’s Party (ÖVP) and also lead it in parliament so that he will be “omnipresent”, Moreau added.

Kurz himself said in a statement Monday on Facebook that he was “not a shadow chancellor”.

Known for his hard line on immigration, the former chancellor is credited with pushing up the popularity of the ÖVP, one of the Alpine EU member’s two biggest parties, which he took over in 2017 after an ugly leadership battle. His first government with the far-right collapsed after a year and a half in 2019 when his ally got caught up in the so-called “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal.

But snap elections returned his party on top – with an increase in votes – and Kurz in an about-turn formed a coalition with the Greens.

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“The PP (People’s Party) doesn’t really have a real replacement for Kurz,”analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP, adding many ÖVP voters “have a close emotional relationship to him”.

“They see the new allegations as some sort of campaign against a successful chancellor,” he said.

Kurz has dismissed the graft allegations against him as “false” and vowed to fight them, but there is no doubt they have hit him hard. On Wednesday prosecutors raided several ÖVP-linked locations over allegations that between 2016 and 2018 finance ministry resources were used to pay for opinion polls – partially manipulated and then published in one of the country’s biggest tabloids – to paint Kurz in a good light.

“Kurz certainly wants to be back – but this, of course, does not only depend on him but on the developments on the judicial front,” said Hofer.

It is not just the prospect of criminal charges for corruption that is doing the damage. Chat messages leaked from investigation files have painted Kurz “as a man thirsty for power, surrounded by a praetorian guard as efficient as they are unscrupulous,” according to Moreau.

“His image as a young and sympathetic superman is definitely damaged,” Moreau added.

His resignation followed intense pressure also from within his own ranks for him to step back, as some inside the party have started “to consider him as a liability rather than an asset,” said analyst Julia Partheymueller.

President Alexander Van der Bellen swiftly declared the political crisis over, thanking Kurz for stepping down and swearing in his replacement on Monday. But some observers say it is far from clear what will happen now.

“The Greens say that they would want to continue the coalition until 2024, but I think many are now preparing themselves for snap elections in 2022,” Partheymueller told AFP.

Moreau too said a new election might be “inevitable”. If Kurtz was not prosecuted, he could well be the one to lead his party to another election success, he added.

By Julia Zappei

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