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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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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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