Either a 'messiah' or 'mini-dictator', the political wunderkind has called a snap election as he grabs for power
Politics, all of a sudden, appears to be a young man’s game. Leo Varadkar, expected to be elected as the leader of Fine Gael, will become the youngest Taoiseach in the history of Ireland, assuming office at the age of 38.
Unless Simon Coveney upsets the political apple cart, Varadkar will have managed to become the leader of his country at a younger age than the two world leaders to whom he recently compared himself; Canada’s Justin Trudeau was a month or so from his 44th birthday when he was elected Prime Minister, while Emmanuel Macron made waves in France when he was elected aged 39.
But Varadkar’s time as the European Union’s young gun could well be very short lived as a snap election called in Austria could see 30-year-old Sebastian Kurz making a grab for power. But just who is this political wunderkind, dubbed by the media as Prince Ironheart?
Sebastian Kurz is arguably the most recognisable Austrian politician on the European stage. With his hair slicked back, rarely wearing a necktie, the fresh-faced Foreign & Integration Minister has become one of the most vocal observers of the migrant crisis gripping the continent.
Considerably younger than the other Foreign Ministers of the OSCE, Kurz stands out from the crowd [Wolfgang Kumm/DPA/PA Images]
Kurz triggered an early election after he was unanimously elected leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) earlier this month. Taking over from Reinhold Mitterlehner, Kurz made the decision to end the 10-year coalition – considered by everyone in Austria as a very unhappy marriage – to the Social Democrats (SPÖ).
While the election won’t take place until October 15th, the media-savvy Kurz has already made it clear he intends to clean up the party and push for an outright victory. The first sweeping change: eradicating the constituency selection process, instead replacing it with hand-picked, gender-balanced independents chosen by the leader. Even the party’s name will not feature on a single ballot paper, which the candidates running instead under the banner ‘Sebastian Kurz – the New People’s Party.’
That decision has seen the young politician immediately compared with French centrist Macron, whose En Marche! movement has also fielded new candidates ahead of France’s parliamentary elections in June.
Kurz is launching his power grab at a time when his personal brand seems almost untouchable in Austria. With the country divided by its response to the humanitarian crisis, some Austrians have hailed Kurz as a “messiah”, capable of crushing the far right movement. He also appears to have the support of the people, branded “The perfect son-in-law,” by a Viennese citizen in an on-the-street interview.
“Things can’t continue the way they are now,” Kurz told journalists the day he took over control of the People’s Party. “Swapping heads won’t be enough; the ÖVP has to completely change.”
As a centre-right party, the ÖVP has suffered a similar fate to most of Europe’s conservative movements; in the past three years, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) has soared in the polls and - until Kurz called the election - had been leading. Since then, the ÖVP have jumped almost 10% - at the expense of the Social Democrats and the FPÖ.
To build on the newfound support, Kurz has wielded his power like no ÖVP leader ever before, demanding a political revolution that will reshape the party.
“What he’s doing is unique in Europe,” political analyst Peter Filzmaier told the AFP. “He’s trying to combine a traditional party with the image of a new movement, a kind of hybrid party if you will.”
Kurz’s political career started in 2003; the son of a teacher and a technician and born in a working-class district of Vienna, he joined the youth movement of the People’s Party, before later being elected as its chief.
Perhaps the biggest blunder of his political career to date came when he became a national punch line during city council elections in 2010. As part of an election campaign courting the elusive youth vote, the young Kurz posed on a black Hummer, surrounded by scantily-clad models, handing out black condoms.
“Schwartz macht geil,” his slogan ran, a deliberately provocative pun translating both as ‘Black makes you great’ and ‘Black makes you horny,’ in reference to the ÖVP’s party colour.
Mercilessly mocked in the national press, the blunder made way for a far more PR-savvy Kurz who learned from his mistake. In the end, he was elected anyway.
Dropping out of university to focus entirely on his political career, he ran in the parliamentary elections in 2013, voted in with the most direct votes of any member of parliament in the election. Within two years, he was named as Foreign Minister, the youngest in the European Union.
The days of Hummers were long gone and any question of his inexperience silenced as Austria played host to the Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna that led to a landmark treaty with the volatile Middle Eastern state. His work in the tense negotiations saw Politico name him one of the year’s most influential Europeans and TIME listed him on its ‘New Generation Leaders’ profile last March.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing; the influx of refugees from Syria, starting in 2015, has become politically fraught in Austria, and Kurz has not shied away from criticising German leader Angela Merkel.
Kurz's tough stance on the refugee crisis has earned him the nickname 'Prince Ironheart' [ Gregor Fischer/DPA/PA Images]
“The European Union cannot act like a human trafficker,” he said, pushing for the closure of the Balkan route. That decision, which received the backing of other Foreign Ministers and the praise of Hungary’s right-wing leader Viktor Orban, has left at least 7,000 refugees stuck in Serbia and surrounding countries, who often resort to actual human traffickers in their desperate attempt to make it to EU soil.
Back in Austria, Kurz’s critics have attacked his culture of personality politics, branding him a one-man team and likening him to a mini-dictator.
Certain political observers also warn that in gutting the ÖVP and rebuilding it from scratch, Kurz runs the risk of opening the door to the far-right FPÖ, whose presidential candidate was only narrowly defeated in December.
And while Kurz will be pushing to lead the first single-party government in Austria since 1983, the polls suggest that a coalition with FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache is a strong possibility - and Kurz hasn’t ruled it out.