Sebastian Kurz: Austria’s right-wing ‘Wunderkind’

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After becoming the world’s youngest elected leader in 2017 at age 31, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz has pulled off yet another surprise.

After working with the far-right party in a coalition government, which was brought down in a corruption scandal, the “Wunderkind”, as he is known by some of his fans, has now formed an alliance with the Greens.

If anyone can swing such a drastic change of allies, it is the millennial leader of the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) –  even though he has proved to be a polarising figure.

“He knows that this is somewhat of a real stunt politically… (but) he is one of the best political marketers in Europe,” says analyst Thomas Hofer.

Despite presiding over a period of unusual instability when a graft scandal engulfed his junior coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), in May, Kurz managed to expand his support base, picking up unhappy FPOe voters to win 37.5 percent in September snap elections.

Growing up in Vienna as the only child of a secretary and a teacher, Kurz became active in the OeVP at the age of 16.

Having dropped out of his law studies to focus on politics, he first entered government in 2011 as secretary for integration, and then as foreign minister two years later, aged 27.

Full of praise for Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Kurz claimed credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016.

Surfing a wave of feeling against traditional figures in politics, Kurz wrested control of the OeVP in 2017 and transformed it into the “Liste Kurz”, a movement centred on his own image.

He swiftly axed the OeVP’s coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe), prompting snap elections in which his campaign –  as immaculate as his trademark gelled-back hair –  propelled him to the top job.

The youth and dynamism his supporters credit him with are also at the fore of an official biography whose sycophantic tone was widely mocked on social media.

Passages describing how Kurz “uttered his first words at the age of 12 months” and lauding his “bravery” as an adolescent prompted critics to dismiss it as a hagiography of “St Sebastian”.

Kurz does not enjoy universal acclaim.

Some have accused him of being a “mini-dictator” and running the OeVP as a “one-man show”.

His predecessor as party leader, Reinhold Mitterlehner, has accused Kurz of leading Austria towards “an authoritarian democracy” and of scapegoating refugees.

That was dismissed as sour grapes from the man Kurz ousted, but others have made similar comparisons.

While some of his admirers prefer parallels with the similarly youthful French President Emmanuel Macron, his detractors see him more as a budding Orban.

Kurz’s boycott of the UN migration pact, welfare cuts for asylum seekers and a raft of other anti-migration measures have made him as divisive a figure as his Hungarian counterpart.

At the same time, he has been careful to present himself as pro-European and avoid any slips of the tongue.

But during the 18-month-long partnership with the FPOe, Kurz’s near total inaction over a steady stream of racist and anti-Semitic sentiment uncovered among FPOe members — a source of embarrassment for Austria abroad — earned him the sobriquet the “silent chancellor”.

What comes next in a coalition with the left-leaning Greens remains to be seen.

Some analysts say the conservatives’ unprecedented alliance with the ecologists could set a precedent for the rest of Europe, describing it as a “daring experiment”.

Kurz has maintained fighting immigration as one of his core promises and has created a new integration ministry –  with a minister from his party.