Sebastian Kurz, an Anti-immigration Millennial, Elected Austria's Next Chancellor

Far-right Freedom Party of Austria, long charged with Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitic inclinations, comes in third

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Chairman of the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz arrives before a TV debate on October 12, 2017 in Vienna ahead of Austrian Parliamentary elections on October 15.
Chairman of the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz arrives before a TV debate on October 12, 2017 in Vienna ahead of Austrian Parliamentary elections on October 15. Credit: GEORG HOCHMUTH/AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz declared victory on Sunday in the race to become the country’s chancellor, making the 31-year old the world’s youngest head of state.

Kurz, the leader of the center-right People's Party (OVP) defeated the Social Democratic Party (SPO), which was the largest in the Austrian parliament before Sunday evening. According to the election night’s final projects, SPO, headed by Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, came in second with 26.9 percent of the votes, while the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) received 26 percent of the votes, making it the third-largest party in parliament.

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The liberal Neos party and the leftist Liste Pilz group are also set to be represented in parliament, with 5.1 percent and 4.3 percent. The Greens plummeted to 3.9 percent and will likely have to lose their legislative seats.

The chairman of the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz arrives for a TV debate on October 11, 2017 in Vienna, ahead of Austrian federal elections which take place on October 15, 2017. Credit: GEORG HOCHMUTH/AFP

The projection is based on 100 percent of the regular ballots and includes a forecast of absentee ballots that will be counted by Thursday. The final result may end up 0.7 percentage points higher or lower.

FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache is a controversial figure, with Nazi and anti-Semitic inclinations in his past. He’s been trying to repair that image and get closer to Israel in recent years, using the common enemy of extremist Islam.

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If Kurz forms a government and includes Strache in it — a likely scenario — Israel will have to consider its reactions. This won’t be easy. The last time this party joined the coalition, in 2000, Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna. But last year, Strache visited Israel as a guest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. It included a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, a mandatory item on the itinerary of every foreign dignitary. The Foreign Ministry recommended that former President Shimon Peres not meet him so as to avoid giving Strache legitimacy.

Kurz used the 24 hours before polls open to repeat, from every possible platform, his campaign’s main message: “Stop illegal immigration.” In an exclusive interview with the right-wing Wochenblick, published Thursday, Kurz outlined the direction he would take. “We’re now contending with the consequences of several mistakes we made 30 and 40 years ago, when uncontrolled immigration began.” If elected chancellor, he promised, he would combat the “parallel community,” his term for Muslims in Austria, as well as acting against “political Islam.”

That is not a scoop. Austria, with a population of 8.7 million, was never known for sympathetic or welcoming attitudes toward the 560,000 Muslims living there. The focus of attention in the election, in Austria and abroad, was Kurz himself, who is not only young in age and appearance but also his conduct, manners and general attitude.

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Demonstrators hold posters 'Nazis get off' during a demonstration against the Austrian Freedom Party FPOe in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. Austria will hold national elections on Sunday, OctCredit: Ronald Zak/AP

His “baby face,” which became his signature feature, is popular with both male and female Austrians, who stop him in the street with requests for selfies, as befitting a pop star, not a cabinet member running for chancellor. Other admirers, less attuned to current trends, merely ask for an autograph. Kurz, tall with an athletic build, his hair swept back, and wearing a well-tailored suit, replies to everyone with a captivating smile.

His young age is reflected in his fresh, unbuttoned approach to his job. In 2013, at the age of 27, he became the youngest foreign minister in European history. From the outset he forbade ministry employees and guests from calling him “Herr Minister” or addressing him in the third person, in a break from the dictates of the German language. “Call me Sebastian,” he tells people, addressing them in the familiar forms of speech generally reserved for old friends or equals. Austrians got it and began calling him by the nickname “Basti.”

His direct and unaffected approach features in other aspects as well. Anyone flying recently across Europe or within Austria may have encountered him in the next seat. Sebastian has set new guidelines by which foreign ministry officials, including their boss, travel in economy, not business class.

It’s no wonder that opinion polls consistently show him as Austria’s most beloved politician. But Kurz is much more than a “pretty face” who can talk with directness. His meteoric rise in Austrian politics reveals self-confidence, leadership and unbridled ambition.

He was born in Vienna in 1986 and graduated from high school in 2004. He dropped out of law school to pursue a political career, first at the municipal level, becoming a member of Vienna’s city council in 2010. There is one chapter in his race to the top that Kurz would probably prefer to delete from his biography. In 2010, when running for municipal office, he led a campaign under the banner “black is cool/sexy” — black was his party’s color and cool/sexy is the translation of the loaded German word Geil.

Kurz rented a Hummer and traveled the streets of Vienna accompanied by shapely women. The video he distributed focused on their breasts. One of his stops was at the Moulin Rouge club, where he organized a cool/sexy party. He later distributed condoms on the street, relating how he lost his virginity at the age of 15. Now, seven years later, his rivals are using this to portray him as sexist, childish and politically incorrect.

Changing positions

In 2011, when he was only 24, Kurz made a big leap by becoming the director of integration in the Austrian Ministry of Interior. Kurz praised Austria’s “Wilkommenskultur,” which advocated presenting a welcoming face to new immigrants.

With the motto of “integration through action” he worked to integrate newcomers into society. “I see myself as a go-to person for immigrants,” he said at the time, trying to amend Austria’s negative image as hostile to foreigners, after years of an extreme right-wing government.

However, as he climbed higher he changed his positions. In 2013 he was appointed foreign minister, and when hundreds of thousands of migrants flooded Austria he didn’t rush to help them but spoke of the dangers of mass immigration. He also supported limiting the social benefits the European Union gives to migrants. His ideological change can be explained, as some Austrian commentators have noted, as the “maturing” or sobering-up of a young politician who saw things differently once he attained office. On the other hand it could be viewed as a political move on his path to the top, by someone seeing himself as the leader of a center-right party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets then Austrian foreign minister and chairman of the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

He later promoted legislation prohibiting the foreign funding of mosques and the wearing of burkas in public spaces. “We want Austrian-style Islam, not one controlled by other states,” he said.

The highlight of his actions and his chief test of leadership in the international arena came when in 2016 he shut down the “Balkans route” used by refugees coming to Austria overland. His success in convincing Balkan states to close their borders to refugees trying to reach Europe’s heartland was criticized at first. It seemed that he’d opened a front against the strongest woman in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was associated with an open-door policy that allowed more than one million refugees into Germany. Ultimately, Merkel admitted that he was right.

He also demonstrated leadership in his sharp criticism of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he labeled as having “dictatorial tendencies.” In July, Kurz barred the entry of Turkey’s minister for economic affairs, who planned to attend a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup in Turkey. Kurz now calls for suspending talks with Turkey over its joining the EU.

This year was one of the most dramatic ones in his career. A few months ago, at the age of 30, he was elected as his party’s leader. He dropped a bombshell by announcing his withdrawal from the coalition with the Social Democrats, dragging Austria into a new general elections after its government became paralyzed for months due to incessant ideological fights.

One of his campaign videos shows him climbing mountains. “The right way is not necessarily the easy one,” he says in it. “Doing the right thing is a decision, which in many cases means you stand alone.”

Dpa contributed to this report.

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