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3 December 2021

Sebastian Kurz: Austria’s millennial chancellor makes a grubby exit

Austria's ex-chancellor promised a new politics, but cosied up to authoritarians and the far right.

By Liam Hoare

VIENNA – A few hours before German Chancellor Angela Merkel marked her impending exit from political life with marching bands and punk singers, over the border, Austria’s ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz bade farewell via the back door. “I am neither a saint nor a criminal,” Kurz insisted as he announced his intention to give up leadership of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and its parliamentary faction, and to leave politics just two months after resigning the chancellorship.

His successor as chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, declared Thursday evening (2 December) that he would make way for whomever the ÖVP chooses to be its next leader, most likely the current interior minister Karl Nehammer.

Kurz said that the birth of his first son, Konstantin, and the “feeling of being hunted” – a reference to the corruption allegations hanging over his head – hastened his leave-taking.

“It’s time for something new” was Kurz’s slogan when he took the leadership of the ÖVP in summer 2017, blowing up the grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) that had ruled Austria for the previous decade in the process. Thus began a period of political instability in Austria that was partly of Kurz’s own making. After the 2017 general election, which the ÖVP won with 31.5 percent of the vote, Kurz formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), a partnership which lasted until vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache’s resignation in May 2019 amid the Ibiza corruption scandal. Kurz subsequently became the first Austrian chancellor to be brought down by a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

As ÖVP leader, Kurz’s strategy took his party to the right on immigration during the 2017 campaign. His positions and those of the FPÖ became almost indistinguishable, one factor that enabled the subsequent coalition to form. Kurz brought anti-immigration politics from the far-right fringe of Austrian politics into the mainstream, and he continued this hard line into his second government, which was with the Greens as junior partner. Appeals from Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, made over Christmas 2020 to take in 100 families with children from the ravaged Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, fell on deaf ears.

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That coalition with the Greens, born in January 2020, was defined by the coronavirus pandemic. The embarrassment caused by infections at the Ischgl ski resort aside, Kurz’s handling of the first wave of the pandemic in March and April 2020 proved better than most, ensuring case numbers were down to near-zero by the start of May. Thereafter, Kurz proved too eager to declare the pandemic over and herald a return to normality, setting the stage for subsequent viral waves in the autumns of 2020 and 2021. His appeals to “self-responsibility” in part explain why Austria’s full vaccination rate had stagnated at just under 60 percent by the end of summer 2021.

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[See also: Will Austria’s lockdown for the unvaccinated work?]

In office, Kurz successfully cut both income and corporation tax rates; the latter is set to fall from 25 to 21 percent over the next few years. But without a simultaneous shrinking of the state, his economic agenda was more of a conservative-populist soup, a product of political compromise. Tax cuts came with much-publicised pension increases. His restructuring of the healthcare system – shrinking the number of state-run insurance providers from 21 to five – was a superficial rebranding exercise.

Kurz should be credited with treating the Austrian Jewish community’s concerns with the utmost seriousness. Here, there are concrete achievements: a tripling of the community’s security budget, a new Holocaust memorial, a commitment to Israel’s security as a raison d’état, and a vital nationality law reform that now means the descendants of victims of National Socialism can reclaim their stolen citizenship. Yet Kurz never could reconcile those policies with bringing the far right into government, as Jewish communal leadership held firm to its boycott of the FPÖ.

At the European level, Kurz sought to extend Austrian soft power deeper into central and eastern Europe. He courted the Visegrád states and was a champion of Western Balkan integration into the European Union, offering what he called a “European perspective” to these countries. In the process, Kurz was often uncomfortably and unnecessarily close to the region’s more autocratic leaders. In 2016, while foreign minister, Kurz campaigned for the conservative-nationalist VMRO-DPMNE in North Macedonia, while in September this year, Kurz was honoured by Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić with the Order of the Republic of Serbia.

Kurz’s chancellorship ended on 11 October 2021. He had promised a new kind of politics, a break with the opaque ways of the grand coalition – the cosy deals that dominated Austrian politics for decades. In the end, his new politics bore all the hallmarks of the old. Austria’s anti-corruption authorities allege associates of Kurz schemed to use state funds to pay for favourable opinion polling, which was then published in a friendly freesheet. The WKStA also continues to examine possible ties (financial and political) between the ÖVP, the international gambling giant Novomatic and the partly state-owned casino operator Casinos Austria.

[See also: The rise and fall of Red Vienna]

Aged 35, Kurz will formally relinquish his official party functions in the coming days. A job in the private sector beckons. But if those corruption investigations reach a dead end, only a fool would rule out a political comeback, particularly as the ÖVP’s polling numbers continue to fall. But this particular arc of Kurz’s political career, which began in 2008 when he took over the ÖVP’s youth wing and took off when he joined the cabinet as secretary of state for integration in 2011, is surely at an end, its denouement marked not by processions and praise but ignominy.

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