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

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.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz
Down but not out: former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

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

Who is Alexander Schallenberg, Austria’s new leader?

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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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