Kurz: Austria’s own Macron or ‘mini-dictator’?

Kurz: Austria’s own Macron or ‘mini-dictator’?

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz holds a press conference after being appointed as head of the country’s center-right People’s Party (OeVP) in Vienna, this week. — AFP
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz holds a press conference after being appointed as head of the country’s center-right People’s Party (OeVP) in Vienna, this week. — AFP

HISTORY could remember 30-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s own version of Emmanuel Macron by becoming its youngest ever chancellor — or as the man who let the far-right back into power.

With his slicked-back hair and big blue eyes, the fresh-faced foreign minister has been hailed as a “messiah” whose planned overhaul of the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) could help revive its fortunes and even lead to victory in a snap election on Oct. 15.

The early parliamentary ballot was triggered after Kurz took over the OeVP’s reins from chief Reinhold Mitterlehner last weekend and pulled the plug on the decade-long unhappy coalition with the Social Democrats (SPOe).

Hugely popular among ordinary Austrians — “The perfect son-in-law,” gushed one member of the public in a recent TV interview — the media-savvy Kurz announced he would enter the race with an independent list of hand-picked candidates also from outside the party.

The OeVP’s acronym won’t even figure on the ballot paper, which instead will just read “Sebastian Kurz — the New People’s Party”.

The decision has prompted comparison with the centrist Macron who, at 39, was recently crowned France’s youngest-ever president after launching his En Marche! (On the Move!) movement and beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

By banking on his personal popularity to bring electoral success, Kurz is “clearly attempting to model himself on President Macron, another young politician who has torn up the existing order,” according to Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper.

The list is part of radical measures introduced by the trailblazing Kurz to revive the OeVP, which is languishing in third place behind the SPOe and the populist Freedom Party (FPOe) in opinion polls.

Like other traditional parties in Europe, the SPOe and OeVP have hamorrhaged voters over rising unemployment and a huge influx of migrants.

To reverse the trend, the Viennese-born wunderkind has demanded — and obtained — complete control over key party decisions.

“Things can’t continue the way they are now. Swapping heads won’t be enough, the OeVP has to completely change,” Kurz, tieless and with the top button of his crisp shirt undone, told journalists in Vienna after his nomination on May 14.

Despite his young age, Kurz is an old hand at the political game.

Brought up in the blue-collar Meidling district, the son of a teacher and a technician joined the OeVP’s youth branch in 2003, later becoming its chief.

Not immune to faux-pas, he drew ridicule with a 2010 city council election campaign featuring the slogan “Schwarz macht geil”, or “Black makes you hot”, in reference to the OeVP’s party color.

Aged 24, Kurz dropped his law studies in 2011 to become state secretary of integration. Two years later, he was appointed the EU’s youngest foreign minister.

The polished orator quickly crushed jokes about his inexperience by confidently hosting Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna and chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In Europe’s refugee crisis, which unravelled in 2015, he emerged as one of the strongest critics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy and the EU’s mooted migrant deal with Turkey.

Kurz’s successful push to close the so-called western Balkan migrant trail won him praise from Hungary’s populist firebrand leader Viktor Orban — and the moniker “Prince Ironheart” from critics.

News website Politico has named him one of this year’s most influential Europeans while US Time magazine placed him on its “New Generation Leaders” list in March. — AFP