Sebastian Kurz suffers fall from grace in Austria amid graft inquiry

Case against former chancellor includes unflattering texts never meant for public’s eyes

Sebastian Kurz, who resigned as chancellor last weekend, takes his seat before being sworn-in as an MP in the Austrian parliament, in Vienna, on Thursday. Photograph: Lisa Leutner/AP Photo

Sebastian Kurz, who resigned as chancellor last weekend, takes his seat before being sworn-in as an MP in the Austrian parliament, in Vienna, on Thursday. Photograph: Lisa Leutner/AP Photo

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Sebastian Kurz finally made it to the Hofburg this week – just not as he planned. Austria’s well-groomed political wunderkind didn’t arrive in triumph at Vienna’s fabled palace, like the kaiser his critics accuse him of aping. Instead he arrived on Thursday to be sworn in as an MP under a cloud of criminal claims that, five days previously, cost him his chancellorship.

Now the Austrian parliament, camping out in the luxurious Hofburg while its own building is being renovated, has become the backdrop for a drama with all the intrigue and back-stabbing of imperial Austria.

There are two main camps in this business: one side is Kurz’s ruling People’s Party (ÖVP), his loyal parliamentarians and adoring supporters, who see their man as the victim of a deep-state plot by leftist political enemies.

Rivals and critics, meanwhile, see an ambitious political con artist about to be hoist with his own petard.

They point to how Kurz, just 30, became chancellor in 2017 with a promise to clean up Austrian politics.

Suspicion

When investigators raided his chancellery 10 days ago, however, it was on suspicion that he and his aides took over his party, and triggered an election five months later, using the very kind of sleaze they promised to root out.

Though innocent until proven guilty, two separate cases against Kurz are being built using his own words, including a vast archive of unflattering text messages, never meant for public consumption.

One investigation is a jobs-for-the-boys probe while the second, which cost Kurz his job, claims Kurz and his aides colluded with an opinion poll agency to create surveys favourable to him. These polls, so the claim goes, were passed on to a friendly tabloid newspaper which, in exchange for publishing them, was rewarded in kind later with a generous share of the government’s public advertisement budget.

After days of intense backroom negotiations, Kurz yielded to threats from the Green Party, his coalition partner, that it would walk out unless he stood down.

Last Saturday evening Kurz insisted the accusations – based largely on messages he wrote in 2016 – are “false . . . I will be able to clear this up”. He framed his departure as a noble, selfless gesture: “My country is more important than my person. What it needs is stability.”

He remains ÖVP leader, though, and on Thursday became its parliamentary leader while his loyal foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg stepped in as chancellor.

Sparked fury

Schallenberg sparked fury from critics by insisting the prosecutor’s allegations – part of an ongoing investigation – were “wrong”. The new chancellor insisted the ÖVP stands united behind Kurz who, he said, will return to power when the time is right: “The Kurz system is intact.”

Austrian political scientist Natascha Strobl has no doubt about that. Behind the ex-chancellor’s respectable facade she sees a worrying shift in Austria towards what she calls “radicalised conservatism”: far-right populism in a slim-fit suit.

The Kurz ÖVP ticks all the boxes, she argues in a new study: it frames its party as family, its leader as a saviour while all political rivals, the media and inquisitive prosecutors are the enemy. Behind its benevolent promise of reform, she argues, is a hard-right agenda pushed through by stoking a constant mood of anxiety towards a vague “other”.

With such methods, and a strong dependence on its leadership figure, Strobl suggests it is a short road from Kurz to Trump.

“Austrians have a long history of adoring strong leaders but, under Kurz and the ÖVP, they are allowing the state be hollowed out,” she argues. “His ÖVP is not fascist, but its authoritarian push towards a harsher, colder state makes fascism in Austria more likely in the future than unlikely.”

The unfurling drama has remarkable echoes of a new novel by Austrian author Elias Hirschl. With a title that loosely translates as “socially acceptable”, Salonfähig is a viciously entertaining mash-up of American Psycho and All About Eve, told by an unnamed narrator who is obsessed with Julian Vargas, a fictional, Kurz-like figure

Like Kurz, the fictional Vargas becomes chancellor by presenting himself as what Austrian voters want: a charming son-in-law, wise beyond his years, whose hard-line politics are hidden behind a “smile like a well-serviced escalator”.

Servility

In a case of life imitating art, recently-leaked chat protocols of Kurz loyalists have, Hirschl noticed, shown a remarkable similarity to the servility of his own fictional political hangers-on.

“It felt like confirmation that the ÖVP is now a personality cult based around Sebastian Kurz,” said Hirschl. “He has created a system with him at its top but, if he makes a mistake or admits he has made one, he risks shattering the flawless facade and everything beneath him collapses.”

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