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Europe

Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian 'whizz-kid' poised to make history

© Georg Hochmuth, AFP | Sebastian Kurz

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2017-10-16

Who is Sebastian Kurz, the telegenic 31-year-old ‘Wonder Kid’, set to become Europe’s youngest leader after his conservative party came out top Sunday in Austria's national election?

"Many people have placed great hopes in our movement," the fresh-faced leader told a sea of supporters in Vienna on Sunday evening, after his ÖVP centre-right party won 31.5% of the vote.

"It's time to establish a new political style ... I accept this responsibility with great humility."

Until only a few months ago, this responsibility and a possible victory from his Austrian People’s party seemed out of reach. Indeed, when Sebastian Kurz became candidate for chancellor in June, the ÖVP had been trailing by some distance in the polls behind its senior partner in the governing coalition, the centre-left SPÖ (who won 26.7% of Sunday's vote), and behind the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) (who won 27.4%).

With his party projected to win, Kurz appears to have been rewarded for taking some daring political gambles.

He wasted no time

An astute politician with a flashing smile, nicknamed ‘Wunderwuzzi’ (which translates roughly as someone who can walk on water) Kurz has already been compared to the young leaders of Canada and France -- Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron. Like Macron, Kurz created a movement around himself – slowly and deliberately shifting his stance away from the ailing ÖVP conservative party he joined eight years ago.

Kurz wasted no time. He ended the decade-long unhappy coalition with the Social Democrats SPÖ and rebranded the ÖVP as a movement tough on migrants and easy on taxes, thereby stealing some of the FPÖ’s thunder.

The strategy of "putting Austrians first" propelled the party to pole position in opinion polls and Kurz to near rock-star status.

During his electoral campaign, out went the party’s trademark colour black to make way for dashing turquoise blue. Gone too were the letters ÖVP on the campaign posters: beside a photo of the ‘Wonder Kid’ staring in the distance, they were replaced by ‘Kurz 2017’.

Wherever Kurz shows up, sporting mostly slim-cut suits and tieless white shirts, fans in turquoise T-shirts chant his name and women ask if they can hug him. Selfie sessions with the wonder boy can last over two hours.

France24's portrait of Sebastian Kurz

'He is not a new face'

But for all this apparent change Kurz seems to represent, the Vienna-born leader climbed up the political ladder in the traditional way. “He is not a new face. He has managed to present himself such a way, but it is not the case,” explained Sylvia Kritzinger, political science expert at the University of Vienna.

Becoming head of government would be the next leap in a political career that started in 2009 when Kurz, then studying law, was elected chairman of his party's youth branch.

Smart and articulate, he eventually caught the eye of People's Party elders. He was appointed state secretary for integration, overseeing government efforts to make immigrants into Austrians, in 2011.

After a Social Democratic-People's Party coalition was formed four years ago, Kurz, then 27, became Austria's foreign minister - the youngest top diplomat in Europe.

He hosted several rounds of talks between Iran and six other countries on Tehran's nuclear program, meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry and other powerbrokers. Other international events further boosted his visibility and party influence.

A drift to the right

When a new wave of migrants and refugees seeking to relocate to Europe became a continent-wide concern in 2015, Kurz recognised Austrian voters' anxiety over unchecked immigration involving large numbers of Muslim newcomers.

He called for tougher external border controls, better integration and stringent control of "political Islam" funded from abroad. He also organised the shutdown of the popular overland route through the West Balkans many newcomers were using to reach the EU's prosperous heartland.

By now, Kurz and his traditionally centrist party had drifted considerably to the right of their Social Democratic government partners, making governing difficult. Kurz's moment came when both agreed this spring to an early national election.

The People's Party, then lagging in third place and long seen as a stodgy old boys network, made him leader. Kurz set out to reinvent the party's image after securing guarantees for unprecedented authority.

The tonic the party needed

The youthful politician turned out to be the tonic the party needed, helping it shrug off criticism that it's been part of the political establishment for decades. He works standing behind a desk and flies economy class. He has a girlfriend, Susanna, but is private about his life outside politics.

Noting that his center-right party had surpassed the rival Social Democrats only twice since the end of World War II, Kurz called Sunday's election a "historic victory."

Kurz is now expected to form a coalition with the far-right Freedom party. It would be the first time it has entered government since 2000 under Joerg Haider. He could also choose to join another "grand coalition" with the SPÖ, but this is seen as less likely.

Whatever Kurz chooses to do, he has already made history by being Europe’s youngest leader in waiting.

“He wanted to give a new direction to Austrian politics. His campaign theme was change,” reflected Werner Beutelmeyer, head of the Austrian Research Institute Market. “And Austrians wanted change”.

(FRANCE24 with AFP and AP)

Date created : 2017-10-16

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