The Irish Times view on Austria’s embattled leader: provocations and self-pity

As the pressure at home builds, the chancellor has found populist proxy battles elsewhere

Sebastian Kurz was just 31 when he sailed to power in 2017 with a promise to break with so-called Freunderlwirtschaft, the local equivalent of Galway Tent politics. Photograph: Joe Klamar/ /AFP via Getty Images

Sebastian Kurz was just 31 when he sailed to power in 2017 with a promise to break with so-called Freunderlwirtschaft, the local equivalent of Galway Tent politics. Photograph: Joe Klamar/ /AFP via Getty Images

 

With his slim fit suits, solicitous manners and Davos-ready soundbites, Sebastian Kurz is a long way from Kenneth Williams. As problems pile up at home, however, the young Austrian chancellor’s increasingly defensive tone recalls Williams’s camp Caesar in Carry on Cleo: “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy!”

Kurz was just 31 when he sailed to power in 2017 with a promise to break with so-called Freunderlwirtschaft, the local equivalent of Galway Tent politics. Instead of any real structural overhaul, Kurz gave his conservative People’s Party a quick lick of turquoise paint, rebranded it a “movement” and made it subservient to his Instagram-ready integrity image.

His choice of partner proved unwise and the coalition with Austria’s notorious Freedom Party (FPÖ) imploded after two years. FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache had been selling political favours to fictional oligarchs even before polling day. Kurz broke with the far-right, won another snap election and returned to power with the Greens. But a parliamentary inquiry launched to examine Strache’s venality has now pivoted towards Kurz and claims that, among other things, he helped secure a well-paid state job for a friend.

The chancellor now faces a criminal investigation on claims he lied to the inquiry, a charge he denies. Not only is no one crooked in Team Kurz, anyone who suggests otherwise – journalists, opposition politicians, even judges – are, Kurz insists, all part of the conspiracy to topple him.

As the pressure at home builds, the chancellor has found populist proxy battles elsewhere. He threatened to veto an EU vaccine procurement push, attacking the system as unfair, only to lose the battle.

He announced a solo run to acquire the Russian Sputnik V vaccine before EU approval – then changed his mind. He made a surprise trip to Israel last March to discuss vaccine cooperation and, this week, ordered the Jewish state’s flag flown above the chancellery and foreign ministry as a show of support with Israel.

Turkey and some Arab countries have attacked the move as a provocation. Some foreign policy observers in Vienna see the move as an ill-advised break with the mediator tradition of Austrian diplomacy. They see in a similar light orders on the country’s Brussels officials to push back on any statements criticising Israel – a position that contributed to the EU’s failure to take a firm position on the violence in Israel and the occupied territories last week.

As rumours of new elections spread in Vienna, the Kurz era may be cut short. If the alternative is that Kurz stays on and nudges Austria down a route that ends in Budapest and Warsaw, his departure from office will not be mourned by many of his European colleagues.

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