Austria’s political wunderkind targets the chancellery

Sebastian Kurz’s stellar rise and distinctive style ensure every debate revolves around him

Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz is controlled where other Austrian politicians are laconic, and studiously informal in a title-obsessed country. Photograph: Vyacheslav Prokofyev

There will be one notable absentee in the Aviva Stadium on Sunday when Ireland face Austria for their crunch World Cup qualifier. Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz was invited along to the match by his Irish opposite number, Charlie Flanagan, during their recent meeting in Vienna.

Kurz politely declined because he has another kind of qualifier looming: his bid to foreshorten Leo Varadkar’s looming reign as Europe’s youngest leader.

It's a clear case of nomen est omen for the 30-year-old whose surname means, in translation, short. Though the lanky conservative leader is anything but, his career has been one long shortcut: integration and Europe minister from 2011 and, two years later, foreign minister.

After triggering an early election on October 15th, a year early, Austria's political wunderkind is aiming for the chancellery by ensuring every political debate – from future coalition options to Austria's burning immigration question – revolves around him.


Kurz, a Viennese-born law-school graduate, knows how to attract attention: as foreign minister he came out early – and loud – against Turkey, describing its ongoing EU accession talks as a charade. As the EU foreign minister on the refugee crisis front line, Kurz shrugged of Berlin fury when he closed the so-called Balkan route.

The dramatic drop in new arrivals into Austria and western Europe, he says, speaks for itself – and for him. Many colleagues wary of the youthful minister have been won over during his chairmanship of the OSCE this year, a warm-up for Austria’s EU presidency next year.

Curated image

Kurz’s politics are inseparable from his carefully curated image and both are designed to set him apart. He is controlled where other Austrian politicians are laconic, studiously informal (“Call me Sebastian”) in a title-obsessed country.

Pulling the plug on the Austrian government, after others pussyfooted around for months, Kurz veiled his consultant-like ambition by framing his actions as those of a duty-bound heir. “I try to do what I view as right,” he said, “regardless of what is popular at the moment.”

But even Kurz would admit that unpopular is not always right. The unpopular choice in October would be more of the same. Advocates of Austria’s conservative-social democrat power-sharing model say it underpins postwar prosperity and stability. Critics blame the system for an encrusted political elite, reform backlog and a high unemployment of about eight per cent.

Social Democrat (SPÖ) chancellor Christian Kern, hoping for re-election, points to a recovering economy and dropping jobless rate as first signs of a turnaround since he was parachuted into office a year ago. But Kurz has other ideas, dangling before the failing conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) his millennial knack for self-promotion.

When the last ÖVP leader resigned, Kurz played hard-to-get until the party’s influential regional leaders granted him a free hand to run the party, and the campaign. They even agreed to a Macronesque proposal: for the party to back a list of independent, party-backed candidates drawn from outside the shallow political paddling pool. Mission accomplished, he approved its branding: “Sebastian Kurz – the New People’s Party”.

Grand coalition

Recent polls have given the ÖVP a seven-point lead over the SPÖ and the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). If that lead is repeated on October 15th, something many in Vienna doubt, Kurz could revive the grand coalition on his terms. Or he could explore a conservative-populist alliance similar to the 2000 coalition that caused uproar – and demands for sanctions – among Austria’s EU neighbours.

After years leading polls, the populist FPÖ has looked on in alarm as Kurz has made a play for its voters, ramping up his already tough language on immigration and integration. Declining the deputy chancellor role at cabinet, meanwhile, has allowed Kurz to distance himself from his own, dying SPÖ-led government.

Austrian pollster Peter Hajek says the race is far from over, “with a lot in motion”. “And there could be quick setbacks if a candidate or party put their foot in it,” he says.

And the front-runner, leading a campaign as tailor-made as his suits, knows that an Austrian conservative victory – or defeat – carries one name: Sebastian Kurz.