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POLITICS

Who’s who? The key players in Austrian politics

With a new government in place this week, we take a look at the names and faces you need to know to be able to follow Austrian politics.

Austrian government cabinet
Members of Austria's cabinet. But who are all these people exactly? Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Alexander Schallenberg

Current role: Chancellor of Austria since October 2021

Party: Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)

Age: 52

Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Background: An ambassador’s son, Schallenberg was born in Bern, Switzerland and raised in India, Spain and France before entering diplomacy himself.

He began his career as a lawyer, heading up the legal section for Austria’s EU delegation in Brussels. After returning to his home country in 2006, Schallenberg became a press spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, under ministers Ursula Plassnik and Michael Spindelegger.

In June 2019, the ÖVP-FPÖ government collapsed, and Schallenberg was made Foreign Minister in a transitional government, keeping his role when Sebastian Kurz won the election later that year — the only minister to do so. He became a close ally of Chancellor Kurz, and was named as his replacement when the latter stepped down in October 2021.

So what to expect from the country’s new leader, until recently a relatively little known name? Schallenberg may need to rely on his skills in diplomacy to smooth over cracks in the ÖVP-Green coalition and restore trust in the government, and he has vowed to continue working closely with his predecessor.

Sebastian Kurz

Current role: Chair of the Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP)

Party: Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)

Age: 35

Photo: Stefanie Loos/AFP

Background: Kurz dropped out of studying law to pursue his political career and became Austria’s youngest ever Chancellor and the world’s youngest democratically elected leader at the age of just 31.

He first entered government in 2011 as secretary for integration, and then as foreign minister two years later, aged 27. Then he became leader of the ÖVP, and after putting an end to the party’s coalition with the with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), snap elections gave him the top job. 

Kurz has led two governments; the first collapsed after a corruption scandal involving junior coalition partner FPÖ, but after losing his job in a no-confidence vote, the ÖVP triumphed in another snap election and he formed a new coalition, this time with the Green Party. The relationship was troubled however, not least due to the parties’ differing views on migration, and after Kurz became embroiled in another corruption scandal, he was forced out of office — but likely not out of an influence. Kurz’s critics have said he will continue to pull the strings from his continued position as party leader. 

READ ALSO: Why was Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz forced to resign?

Alexander Van der Bellen

Current role: President of Austria

Party: Independent; formerly the Green Party

Age: 77

Photo:Tobias Schwarz / AFP

Background: Born in Austria to Russian and Estonian parents, Van der Bellen became a naturalized Austrian citizen at the age of 14. His educational background is in economics, which he studied in Innsbruck and Berlin, before moving to Vienna where he would later become dean of the economics faculty at the University of Vienna before entering politics.

From 1994 to 2012 he was a member of the National Council, representing the Greens, followed by three years on Vienna’s city council.

Van der Bellen ran in the 2016 presidential elections as an independent candidate, suspending his membership of the Green Party but still receiving its support, including financially. His stated political positions are usually in line with the Greens, including advocating for dual citizenship to be made possible, and for more humane migration policies, even rejecting a 2016 proposal from the government to limit asylum applications.

Werner Kogler

Current role: Vice-Chancellor of Austria and Minister for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport since January 2020

Party: The Green Party (Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative)

Age: 59

Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Background: Hailing from Hartberg in Styria, Kogler studied economics and law. While living in Graz, he formed the Alternative List Graz and later was one of the founders of the Alternative List Austria. This party later merged with the existing Green Party. 

After a stint on the municipal council in Graz, in 1999 Kogler entered the National Council. Known for his strong negotiating and speaking skills, perhaps his most note-worthy moment was delivering a record-breaking nearly 13-hour filibuster opposing a government budget proposal in 2010 (he ended it with the words, “that’s actually all I wanted to say”).

He became leader of the party at a low point for the Greens, when they fell below the 4 percent threshold needed to enter parliament after the 2017 elections. But two years later, he helped lead them to their largest ever voter share (13.9 percent) and into government as part of a coalition with the ÖVP, the first ever such coalition.

Pamela Rendi-Wagner

Current role: Chairperson of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) since November 2018

Party: Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ)

Age: 50

Photo: Vladimir Simicek/AFP

Background: Pamela Rendi-Wagner studied medicine, gaining a doctorate from the University of Vienna and a further Masters in Infection and Health in the Tropics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. After gaining a further diploma in tropical medicine in London, she returned to Vienna where she spent almost a decade working on infectious disease control.

It was in 2012 that she took on her first role in the Ministry of Health, and the following year marked her first official involvement in politics, joining a graduate organization linked to the SPÖ. Still, she didn’t join the party until shortly before taking up the post of Minister of Health and Women in spring 2017. She was only in government until December that year, leaving after the change of government, since which she has been a Member of the National Council.

She was elected to lead her party the following year, the first woman ever to do so, and in the 2019 elections she led them to their worst ever result (21.2 percent), though the SPÖ remained the largest opposition party.

Herbert Kickl

Current role: Leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ)

Party: Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ)

Age: 52


Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Background: Herbert Kickl did not finish the two degrees he started, one in journalism and political science, the other in philosophy and history, dropping out to focus on politics. He began working for the FPÖ in 1995, at first focusing on campaign management.

He was Interior Minister between 2017 and 2019 when the far-right party was in government, and Kickl became known for his Islamophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric.

He lost his job in May 2019 when that government was brought down by a corruption scandal, but was soon made head of his party.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the FPÖ have opposed vaccination, with Kickl denying rumours that he himself has had the jab and making speeches at anti-lockdown protests where he has accused the government of “lunacy”. His party has even organised some of these demonstrations directly.

Beate Meinl-Reisinger

Current role: Chair of NEOS – The New Austria and Liberal Forum since June 2018

Party: NEOS – The New Austria and Liberal Forum

Age: 43

Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Background: Now the leader of the smallest and youngest party in Austrian parliament, Meinl-Reisinger began her career in EU institutions before holding several different positions in Austria’s Economic Chamber and Ministry of Economics.

She started her political career as an advisor for the ÖVP in 2009, but three years later became involved in NEOS, then a new party. She was elected to Austria’s National Council to represent NEOS in the 2013 election, but from 2015 focused on Viennese rather than national politics. She returned to parliament in 2018 after being elected party leader, and the party won just over eight percent of votes in the election the following year, remaining the smallest party but increasing its total seats to 15.

Karl Nehammer

Current role: Interior Minister since January 2020

Party:  Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)

Age: 48

Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

Background: Karl Nehammer’s career began in the ÖVP-affiliated trade union ÖAAB, following studies in political communication.

He became deputy chairperson of the ÖVP in 2017 and the following year became the party’s migration and integration spokesperson.

As Interior Minister since January 2020, Nehammer has faced accusations his ministry could have done more to prevent the Vienna terror attack in the winter of that year. 

He has taken a tough line on immigration, for example following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, he called for “deportation centres” in countries neighbouring Afghanistan to take in Afghans deported from Europe, and said that Austria should continue carrying out deportations to Afghanistan despite many countries pausing this in light of the security situation.

Wolfgang Mückstein

Current role: Health Minister since April 2021

Party: The Green Party

Age: 47

Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Background: Mückstein assumed his current role after his predecessor stepped down, saying that the pandemic had left him exhausted. As a trained doctor and long-time leading figure in the Austrian Medical Association, it’s fairly clear why Mückstein was picked for the role, but he was a political unknown before becoming Health Minister — a role that his been in the spotlight due to the pandemic.

Michael Linhart

Current role: Foreign Minister since October 2021

Party: Independent

Age: 63

Photo: Joe Klamar/ AFP

Background: Linhart joins the Foreign Ministry from his role as Austrian ambassador to France, a career diplomat like his predecessor Alexander Schallenberg. And like Schallenberg, he follows in his own father’s footsteps; Linhart was born in Ankara where his father worked at the embassy, and studied law before postings to Ethiopia, Syria, and Croatia.

In 1995, he became private secretary to the then Foreign Minister, before being promoted to foreign policy advisor and later headed up the ministry’s Austrian Development Agency. He then spent five years working in the Foreign Ministry as Secretary General before his ambassadorship in France.

Although politically independent, Linhart has ties to the ÖVP and was appointed by that party.

Gernot Blümel

Current role: Finance Minister since January 2020

Party:  ÖVP

Age: 39

Photo: Jure Makovec / AFP

Background: With an education in philosophy and an MBA, Gernot Blümel started his political career in the youth wing of the ÖVP and has held a range of roles within the party and within government, before becoming Finance Minister under Sebastian Kurz.

His finance policy generally has a focus on austerity, and in the context of the pandemic he aims to reduce Austria’s debts incurred as a result of the costs incurred fighting Covid-19. Along with his counterparts in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, Austria is one of the so-called Frugal Four among the EU.

On a personal level, Blümel is seen as one of the closest allies of Sebastian Kurz, and like him he has become embroiled in corruption allegations. In the major Ibizagate scandal, he was one of the most high-profile targets and had his home raided in February 2021 over alleged donations from a gambling company to the ÖVP. He denies any wrongdoing.

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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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