Poster boy for the post-ide­o­log­i­cal era of per­son­alised pol­i­tics in Aus­tria

Echoes of Macron’s move­ment in France are in­ten­tional

The Irish Times - - World News - Derek Scally

At Vi­enna’s Stadthalle con­cert hall, a ca­pac­ity crowd of 16,000 claps their hands to the jaunty Radet­zky March.

Then he ap­pears: a mes­siah in a slim-fit suit, with greased-back hair and jug-like ears.

Watch­ing this Vi­en­nese spec­tac­u­lar – Riefen­stahl does Euro­vi­sion – the thought oc­curs that Leo Varad­kar will this week­end hand over his crown as Europe’s youngest leader to Aus­tria’s shoot­ing star: Se­bas­tian Kurz.

Just 31, the Vi­enna na­tive en­tered pol­i­tics aged 16, dropped his law stud­ies to be­come Europe and in­te­gra­tion min­is­ter aged 26 and, since 2013, has served as for­eign min­is­ter.

To­day he is com­pletely at ease as cam­eras in the Vi­enna hall film him from all an­gles, in­clud­ing from a wire zip­ping above. In a con­trol room, 10 peo­ple sit be­fore a mix­ing desk and screens choos­ing im­ages for the big screens in the hall and the tele­vi­sion broad­cast.

Kurz of­fers him­self as the so­lu­tion to Aus­tri­ans who are heartily tired of their po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. Back “Team Kurz”, he says, and join his po­lit­i­cal “move­ment” for change. Whether in mer­chan­dise or emails, it’s all about Se­bas­tian: poster boy for the post-ide­o­log­i­cal era of per­son­alised pol­i­tics.

The echoes of Em­manuel Macron’s vic­to­ri­ous En Marche! move­ment are in­ten­tional. Ex­cept for a cru­cial de­tail: un­like for­mer econ­omy min­is­ter Macron, Kurz did not give up his job and go out on his own to found a new party out­side ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal struc­tures.

Grand coali­tion

He is a cab­i­net min­is­ter in Aus­tria’s grand coali­tion and head of the cen­tre-right Peo­ple’s Party (ÖVP). This con­ser­va­tive party has been in power for all but 17 years in Aus­tria’s post-war era – and con­tin­u­ously for the last 30 years.

But in the leg­isla­tive elec­tion cam­paign Kurz has kept the prob­lem brand well hid­den, clipped the wings of pow­er­ful re­gional party lead­ers and pulled in non-ca­reer politi­cians from all walks of life – from busi­ness­women to wheelchair-us­ing ath­letes.

The sense of mo­men­tum is pal­pa­ble but, be­hind the scenes, the Kurz show is run by an army of ex­pe­ri­enced diplo­mats and ÖVP po­lit­i­cal veter­ans. So is his “move­ment” really new, or just old Aus­trian wine in a young, slim bot­tle?

“We won’t even know that on elec­tion day, [but rather] in a few years at the ear­li­est,” says Prof Peter Filz­maier, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Danube Univer­sity in Krems. “Kurz needs a very clear vic­tory and suc­cess in gov­ern­ment as chan­cel­lor, only then will his party ac­cept fur­ther re­forms and al­low him choose se­nior per­son­nel.”

On­stage in Vi­enna, noth­ing is left to chance. Ev­ery­one speaks in scripted sound­bites: re­gional politi­cians, teenage vol­un­teers, even the 11-year-old Ni­co­laus Evian, in the hall be­cause he told Kurz dur­ing his road trip that he wanted to be chan­cel­lor one day, too.

“I like that Se­bas­tian al­ways had a clear po­si­tion in the refugee cri­sis, even if it was un­pop­u­lar,” says young Ni­co­laus, sound­ing re­mark­ably pre­co­cious for an 11-year-old.

The 2015-16 refugee cri­sis, in which Aus­tria was on the front­lines, was Se­bas­tian Kurz’s golden hour. As for­eign min­is­ter he ne­go­ti­ated with his south­west­ern neigh­bours to close the so-called Balkan Route.

“We re­mained stead­fast when half of Europe was shout­ing at us,” says Kurz on­stage, in a nod to Brus­sels and Ber­lin, as the crowd cheers in sup­port. “We want to keep our bor­ders se­cure so we de­cide who comes into our coun­try, not hu­man traf­fick­ers.”

In a snappy speech he runs through re­form prom­ises for Aus­tria: a new debt brake; a law to end pre-bud­get give­aways; more pow­ers for the chan­cel­lor.

He at­tracts the big­gest ap­plause for prom­ises to cut the tax bur­den and cut wel­fare for asy­lum seek­ers and refugees.

Such tough talk has seen Kurz sai l past his So­cial Demo­crat (SPÖ) se­nior coali­tion part­ners, who are tied in knots over dirty tricks al­le­ga­tions against him. He has even sup­planted the far-right pop­ulist Free­dom Party (FPÖ), by steal­ing its clothes through im­mi­grant-crit­i­cal pol­icy and so­cial me­dia sound­bites.

In a re­cent Face­book post, for in­stance, Kurz wrote of con­cerned Vi­enna cit­i­zens who had told him they were con­sid­er­ing mov­ing “be­cause they feel like strangers in their own lane”.

Vi­enna mayor Michael Häupl, of the So­cial Democrats, said he had “never heard such non­sense”, while Lutheran arch­bishop Michael Bünker has warned politi­cians about us­ing refugees as “scape­goats” for elec­toral gain.

After beat­ing the FPÖ on its own im­mi­gra­tion turf, it is likely that Kurz will of­fer the pop­ulist party the role of ju­nior part­ner in of­fice. Such an al­liance is un­likely to prompt a re­peat of the EU’s sanc­tions against Vi­enna’s ÖVP-FPÖ coali­tion in 2000. The mood has changed since then: with public opin­ion – in Aus­tria and across the en­larged EU – hard­en­ing against im­mi­grants, Is­lamist ex­trem­ism, and even against the EU it­self.

And when Aus­tria as­sumes the EU’s ro­tat­ing pres­i­dency next year, its chan­cel­lor will have an in­flu­en­tial role in shap­ing the loom­ing im­mi­gra­tion and asy­lum de­bate.

“Kurz is with­out doubt some­one who sees the EU in al­most all is­sues as part of the so­lu­tion and not the prob­lem,” says Filz­maier. “He will try to push his po­si­tions in the EU with­out shying away from con­flict, but will not act against the EU it­self.”

In the last days of cam­paign­ing, Kurz po­larises like few oth­ers.

One camp sees him as Aus­tria’s best hope to re­form the dusty sta­tus quo, a 21st-cen­tury wun­derkind in the mould of Met­ter­nich, im­pe­rial Aus­tria’s wily diplo­mat-in-chief. But crit­ics see him as a pop­ulist op­por­tunist in a hurry, happy to ex­tract max­i­mum sup­port through just enough xeno­pho­bic dog-whis­tles.

Show over in Vi­enna, an army of teenage Kurz looka­likes – open shirts, jack­ets and greased-back hair – spill out on to the street armed with goodie bags, free ice-cream and food and drink. “We like Se­bas­tian be­cause he doesn’t just talk, he acts,” says An­dreas (18), from Salzburg. “The crit­ics are just jeal­ous, or op­posed to the change we need.”

‘ ‘ Kurz has the look that Aus­tri­ans like, it com­mu­ni­cates ‘suc­cess’ to them

Unim­pressed

But not ev­ery­one is im­pressed.

Chris­tian (25), from Vi­enna, fin­ishes off a schnitzel bread roll and ad­mits he only came for the food. “Kurz has peo­ple eat­ing out of his hand by sell­ing him­self as not part of the sys­tem, although he clearly is,” he says. “Kurz has the look that Aus­tri­ans like, it com­mu­ni­cates ‘suc­cess’ to them.”

An un­de­cided at­tendee is Wal­ter Krug from the Steier­mark. The pen­sioner knows a thing or two about celebrity politi­cians: decades ago in the army he was the su­pe­rior of a young man called Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger.

Krug says the body­builder-film­star-politi­cian learned a lot by mar­ry­ing into the Kennedy fam­ily. But Se­bas­tian Kurz is dif­fer­ent.

How? Aura, says Krug, with a sat­is­fied lick of a blue ice-cream cone.

“He sells him­self as part-vir­gin, part-mes­siah, come to save peo­ple tired of pol­i­tics,” he says. “It’s a hugely pop­u­lar strat­egy but, if he fails to de­liver, the dam­age to democ­racy will be huge.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS

Head of the Peo­ple’s Party Se­bas­tian Kurz arrives for a TV dis­cus­sion in Vi­enna.

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