Sebastian Kurz: A Strongman Rises in Austria

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz attends press conference following meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s guest house in Moscow, Russia, on January 18, 2017.
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Sebastian Kurz: A Strongman Rises in Austria

Upcoming elections could further shake Europe’s political landscape.

Austria announced May 15 that it would hold fresh parliamentary elections in October. The result of the vote will likely be a coalition involving the far-right.

On May 13, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, a rising star in the Austrian People Party (övp), was voted in as the new head of the övp. Kurz also enjoys more power than any party leader prior to him. He is likely willing to form a coalition with Austria’s populist, right-wing Freedom Party (fpö), whose popularity has risen due to the recent refugee crises.

Reinhold Mitterlehner’s resignation as the head of Austria’s People’s Party two weeks ago opened the path for Kurz’s rise to power. Mitterlehner resigned because he could not cope with the internal power struggle within his party. Kurz now holds a good chance to become Europe’s youngest head of state.

On May 14, Kurz gave his party two options: accept him as a leader with unprecedented authority, or go into the next election without a clear leader. The övp chose to accept his conditions. The conditions include the power to choose the ministers under him and the right to nominate candidates for parliament (including party outsiders). Kurz said that his party would go into the election under a new name: Liste Sebastian Kurz—the New People’s Party.

Spiegel Online’s Vienna correspondent compared the new rights Kurz gained to those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán is accused of undemocratic reform and reducing the freedom of the press. The correspondent said that in some ways, the övp is also becoming less democratic.

Kurz expressed opposition to his party’s current coalition partner, the Social Democrats (spö), headed by Chancellor Christian Kern. The next day, the two parties announced a break, calling for new elections in October.

Kurz is currently the most popular politician in Austria, and he has had a remarkable career. He first got the world’s attention in 2013 when he became the world’s youngest-ever foreign minister. Last year, he made international headlines again with his solution to the refugee crisis: His proposed plan included a reception center for migrants on an island in the Mediterranean. Though his proposal was rejected, he found favor from the Austrian public and other European politicians who want their government to meet the crisis with a stronger response.

The October 15 elections will mostly be a choice between him and current Chancellor Kern, but as Politico noted, the more important question might be which of the two parties is more likely to pursue a coalition with the populist fpö. Politico wrote:

A decision by Austria’s mainstream parties to end their grand coalition and hold a parliamentary election in the fall gives the right-wing Freedom Party its best chance in nearly 20 years to join, and possibly even lead, the government.

On the question of which party would more likely form a coalition with Austria’s populists, Politico noted: “If history is any guide, it would be Kurz. The övp broke the taboo of governing with the populists in 2000, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t do it again.” Added to that, his agenda matches populist thought more than any other. However, there are still a few months ahead, and surprises are still possible.

However the elections end, one trend is certain: Austrian voters are joining much of the rest of Europe in turning toward populist leaders. They would like someone such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who promises radical changes in the political establishment. Not too long ago, we saw a similar trend that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War ii. For more on this developing repeat of a historically disastrous trend, read “Europe’s Old Demons Return.”