By handing a convincing victory to the centre-right party of 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz on Sunday, Austria rewarded one of the most audacious political gambles in its recent history.
Until Kurz was announced as a candidate for chancellor in June, his Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) had been trailing by some distance in polls behind its senior partner in the governing coalition, the centre-left SPÖ, and behind the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ).
But on Sunday evening the man Austrian tabloids have affectionately dubbed wunderwuzzi or “wonderkid” could hardly make himself heard over deafening cheers as walked on to the stage at Vienna’s Kursalon, draped in the turquoise colours of his “movement”.
With the ÖVP winning more than 30% of the vote, Kurz is in a position to choose whether he wants to continue the “grand coalition” of the past decade under his leadership or enter an alliance with the nationalist FPÖ.
By having turning around the fortunes of an ailing traditional party outfit, he also joins an ideologically incongruous group of European politicians who have managed to inject the political centre with new energy.
Kurz made his candidacy conditional on an overhaul of his party’s selection processes, with Sunday’s ballot listing his name next to the “New People’s party”. Although the ÖVP has been in government continuously for 30 years and Kurz is one of the cabinet’s longest serving ministers, he had the chutzpah his campaign on a platform of change, with posters announcing “time for something new”.
Critics argue that Kurz’s rise has come at the cost of embracing a divisive agenda dictated by the nationalist right. Throughout his campaign, he has consistently reminded voters of his role in closing down the Balkan route for refugees flowing into Europe last year, as well as his drive for a “burqa ban” that came into force this month.
His mission to win back voters who have migrated to the populist right may at times have driven him to play fast and loose with the facts: the Vienna-based weekly magazine Falter has alleged that Kurz’s team doctored an academic report on Islamic nurseries in order to justify his call for a burqa ban.
Stephan Schulmeister, an economist who advised the last ÖVP chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, argued that Kurz’s economic manifesto was almost identical to that of the FPÖ. “Both parties want to lower tax on income and wages, which will above all play into the hands of the higher-earning 50% of the population,” Schulmeister said in a video that has gone viral on social media.
The economist calculates that these and other tax reductions would amount to starving the Austrian welfare state of between €10bn and €14bn. “With Kurz’s takeover of the Austrian People’s party, the cordon sanitaire between the two centre parties and the rightwing populists has finally fallen away,” he told the Guardian.
Kurz’s supporters, however, praise him for having developed an entirely new strategy for coping with an aggressive and media-savvy nationalist right. After years of politicians from the two centre parties criticising the FPÖ’s rhetoric only to then embrace its policies, the ÖVP candidate has been more proactive, emphasising international solutions for domestic problems.
In TV debates, Kurz has repeatedly criticised the leader of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache, for his links to parties that want to “destroy the EU”. He has insisted that the next government of Austria, which takes over the EU council presidency in 2018, has to be “strongly pro-European”.
In a move that hinted at a progressive strain in the politician’s thinking, Kurz in 2014 incorporated the state secretary for integration into his foreign ministry. Immigration could be a competition for international talent rather than just a source of social ills, he suggested.
The requirements for his candidacy further allowed Kurz to showcase his reformist zeal. Austria’s unique “social partnership” system, which integrates unions and interest groups in the political decision-making process, is seen as a pillar of the country’s economic success in the postwar era. But it can also make political parties rigid environments, in which membership of the right chamber of commerce can be more important than talent or imagination.
Kurz’s list of ministerial candidates includes a former Green politician who has Turkish heritage, a former pole vaulter who uses a wheelchair, and a psychoanalyst who used to be a member of the board of Vienna’s Jewish Community. Of the 20 candidates, 50% are female. Only three of Austria’s 14 ministries are currently led by women.
Could Austria’s likely new chancellor teach the rest of Europe how to cope with rightwing populism? “We will see that once it becomes clear whether the ‘Kurz formula’ has worked out or not,” said Anton Pelinka, a professor of political science at Budapest’s Central European University.
“His formula has consisted of stealing talking points from the FPÖ and presenting them in more moderate garments and with better manners. Will it marginalise the Freedom party? In the long run, my guess is no. But for now we should wait and see.”