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11 October 2021

Why Sebastian Kurz will now be Austria’s “shadow chancellor”

By remaining chair of the People’s Party, the scandal-hit Kurz will continue to wield power behind the scenes.

By Liam Hoare

Sebastian Kurz is 35 years old and already a former chancellor of Austria – twice. In May 2019, amid the fallout from the Ibiza corruption affair, Kurz’s government was the first in the history of the postwar Second Republic to fall in parliament to a motion of no confidence. On Saturday evening, faced with the prospect of a second such humiliation, Kurz announced his intention to step aside as chancellor in favour of foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg.

The fall was swift. On Wednesday morning, anti-corruption authorities (WKStA) conducted searches of the federal chancellery and the headquarters of Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). The WKStA suspects that in 2016, when Kurz was foreign minister, he and close associates schemed to use state funds to pay for opinion polling favourable to Kurz, which was then published in the friendly freesheet Österreich. The paper also happens to be in receipt of a generous amount of government advertising and public service announcements relative to its readership.

Kurz believes the allegations to be false and the presumption of innocence applies. But his coalition partners, the Greens, saw this scandal as one too many. Kurz was already under investigation by the WKStA over possible false statements made to the parliamentary investigative committee looking into the Ibiza affair. Anti-corruption authorities, too, are still examining possible ties (financial and political) between the ÖVP, the international gambling giant Novomatic and the partly state-owned casino operator Casinos Austria.

On Friday morning (8 October), the Greens’s vice-chancellor Werner Kogler decreed the coalition could not continue with Kurz at the helm; the ÖVP had to find a new candidate who was “above reproach”. The ÖVP’s cabinet ministers and regional party bosses circled the wagons around Kurz while the Greens held talks with opposition parties ahead of parliament’s reassembly. Shortly after 7.30pm, Kurz broke into the nightly news with all the grace of a spooked horse, holding a bizarre press conference in which he stressed his ability to continue in the post. The Greens held firm: it’s Kurz or us. Twenty-four hours later, he was gone.

Gone, but not gone. Though he will resign the chancellorship, Kurz plans to remain chair of the ÖVP, a party over which he was given total control when he became its head in May 2017. He will also move from the executive to the legislative, taking up a seat in parliament where he will lead the ÖVP parliamentary party. This, it seems, will be a ceremonial role. The donkey work – organising legislative business, whipping the party’s representatives – will be left to the role’s current inhabitant, August Wöginger.

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This political three-point turn suits all parties – in the short term at least. The ÖVP remains where it has been since 1986: in power. The Greens, despite of threatening to end the coalition, in truth desired no such thing. Their preference was always to continue governing with the ÖVP, and on Saturday evening, vice-chancellor Kogler welcomed Kurz’s resignation as the “right step” for the coalition’s future. With Schallenberg as chancellor, the coalition work could continue, he added on Sunday evening. Kogler’s brinkmanship can be said to have its reward: Kurz’s head is a prize the Greens can display to its party faithful.

While Kurz may have cast the resignation as falling upon his sword – “My country is more important to me than myself,” he said – the 35-year-old cannot be said to have suffered. He loses the chancellorship but retains the party chair. He gains a prominent perch in parliament with a handsome salary attached (parliamentary party chairs earn €15,380 net each month) and immunity from prosecution unless parliament decides to lift it. From the debate chamber’s front row, he can continue to conduct party politics, and in Schallenberg, he has chosen a chancellor who held the party line even as the opinion polling scandal unfolded.

Kurz is also extremely well-positioned should new elections come about sooner rather than later. Though the threat of a snap vote at the height of the ski season seems to have abated, whether this arrangement with Kurz lurking in the wings can hold for more than a few months beyond the passage of this month’s budget remains unclear. If not in January or February, the possibility of parliamentary elections is very real once the frost thaws and the near-certain winter wave of Covid-19 infections among Austria’s unvaccinated eases.

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At the polls, the advantage could remain Kurz’s. The Greens are suffering from junior partner syndrome: whether they are rewarded or punished for staying put in the coalition is for the voters to decide. The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) remains weak and divided. The Freedom Party (FPÖ) faces a threat to its corona-sceptic right in the form of the MFG Party, which won more than 6 per cent of the vote in recent state elections in Upper Austria, and could replicate that success at the national level. Unfortunately for the liberal NEOS, its politics remains a niche interest in Austria.

As long as he isn’t charged, Kurz could stress his honour in resigning and protest his innocence while running a right-wing populist electoral campaign. After 2019’s vote of no confidence, Kurz turned to the country and said: “Parliament has determined. The people will decide. Can I count on your support?” The country said yes, and his ÖVP won 37.5 per cent of the vote that September. A rerun in 2022 could pit the people not only against parliament, but the media and the political class who, he may argue, determined him guilty before his innocence could be proved.

Gone, but not gone. “Sebastian Kurz is no longer chancellor but the ‘Kurz system’ remains,” SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner warned on Saturday night (9 October). “Kurz will now be ‘shadow chancellor’ and continue to pull the strings.”

Liam Hoare is europe editor for “Moment Magazine”, and author of the newsletter The Vienna Briefing. He lives in Vienna.

[See also: Will Germany have a new government by Christmas?]