By Walter Mayr
This spring, Austria’s youngest-ever chancellor was felled by a political scandal. But Sebastian Kurz could soon be back at the helm. A majority of Austrian voters seemingly can’t wait to have him back.
There are two versions of Sebastian Kurz. Once the microphones are switched off and there are no photographers nearby, the mask disappears. His hands stop waving around as he speaks and he is no longer as careful about weighing each word. The meticulously curated facade of the statesman begins to fade.
One-on-one, the friendly Mr. Kurz can quickly become caustic. He starts disparaging rivals who, back in their journalist days, just “wrote what they were told,” and he ridicules leading leftists who pretend to represent the proletariat but send their kids to the most expensive private school in Vienna. Kurz also complains about critics who try to slap a far-right label on him “even though I’m not a fascist.”
Once the 33-year-old Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s youngest-ever chancellor, gets into campaign mode, it’s hard to stop him. On this evening, he has already been working for 13 hours by the time he arrives at the traditional Steinerwirt Hotel in the town of Zell am See. On the outside, he maintains an air of formality. “Could I please have a glass of water and a cup of chamomile tea?” he almost imploringly asks the waitress. And, even more striking, when his admirers ask to take a selfie with him, he’s the one who thanks them afterward.
Outwardly, his appearance is impeccable; inwardly, he’s obsessed with power: That’s how his critics see him. He’s “completely free of ideology,” some say. Others call him politically “unique but soulless,” say he is driven by a cool “intoxication with power” or accuse him of being as “unscrupulous as he is clueless.” Such words come from top Austrian politicians, national laureates and publicists. Kurz reads their scathing judgements in the morning papers, but when he goes out into the world to visit voters down in southern Tyrol or in the village of Oberpullendorf near the Hungarian border, another picture begins to emerge: Kurz can hardly escape the throngs of admirers waiting for him.
One Scandal After Another
For 17 months, Kurz served as the youngest chancellor in Austrian history, and his approval ratings remained consistently high. Then, in May, DER SPIEGEL and the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung published the Ibiza video unmasking Kurz’s coalition partner, Heinz-Christian Strache from the far-right populist FPÖ. The Austrian government promptly collapsed and plunged the country into one of the most serious political scandals of its postwar history. New elections are set for Sept. 29 and Kurz is keen to return to power. As the head of the conservative ÖVP party, his chances of success are good. According to polls, he and his party have an unassailable lead: 42 percent of those surveyed — an even higher result than two years ago — say they would like to see Kurz return to the Chancellery.
The left-liberal Viennese elites’ criticism of the former head of government leaves Kurz’s followers indifferent. But what about Kurz himself? Those who had the opportunity to watch the 24-year-old state secretary for integration become a very young foreign minister and ultimately a 31-year-old chancellor have noticed that Kurz has become more distrustful and thinner-skinned. The man who always wanted to be in control of everything has been forced to realize that there are some things recently that he lost his grip on.
It wasn’t just the Ibiza video, in which the FPÖ chief Strache and his deputy Johann Gudenus made Austria look like a banana republic. There was also the scandal in which one of Kurz’s staff members had hard drives from the Chancellery destroyed under a false name. There were also a number of secretive ÖVP party donations, and then there was the overly flattering “official biography” of Kurz.
The Vienna-based weekly Falter also recently published internal ÖVP documents that shed unfavorable light on the party’s supposed savior. The documents not only revealed Kurz’s 2017 election strategy to beat the FPÖ with its own populist weapons, they also seemed to depict a party in severe financial distress that was overly dependent on rich donors. The party’s 2017 election campaign costs were several million euros above the legally permitted limit.
While Kurz likes to post photos of himself flying economy, he is said to have signed off on a flight for himself to Rome in a private jet for 7,700 euros ($8,500). There were also generous monthly consulting fees for party loyalists as well as lavish expenses for make-up and “hair grooming” for the ÖVP chief — partly subsidized by the taxpayers’ dime.
An Unscrupulous Political Talent
Kurz, a control freak by nature, has enjoyed one of the steepest career trajectories in modern political history, and is now facing a barrage of unfavorable attention from the media. He is a polarizing figure, which distinguishes him from Austria’s other politicians. Kurz is mocked as “Saint Sebastian” — the early Christian figure who was shot full of arrows — not only due to his politics but also because of the peculiar Austrian tendency to treat above-average talent in an especially critical way.
Kurz is able to articulate difficult problems in short, simple sentences. And he has nothing against being referred to as “Prince Ironheart,” due to his resistance to taking large numbers of refugees and migrants. Kurz bears some responsibility for the Ibiza scandal and its consequences, since he was the one who invited the FPÖ into a coalition — but only after soundly defeating Strache in the election, despite Strache’s months-long lead in the polls.
Hardly anyone denies that Kurz is the biggest political talent Austria has seen since Bruno Kreisky, who was a chancellor for the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) between 1970 and 1983, and Jörg Haider, the former head of the FPÖ, who died in a car crash in 2008. The ÖVP leader has the right instinct for finding the election topics that will win him votes. As an orator, he is polished and unerring. But when it comes to policy, it’s less clear what Kurz’s actual beliefs are, besides the fact that he thinks hard work should be worthwhile. Kurz is a technician of power, one who has little patience for the old-fashioned focus on policy minutiae. Everything he does is coolly and pragmatically calculated. He sees politics as a craft, not a mission.
Kurz says he was “shocked and of course disappointed” when he saw the reports about the comments made by the FPÖ politician on the island of Ibiza. “I had no reason to believe that such a thing could happen.” However, as he plots his comeback, Kurz is not ruling out any possible coalition — including a renewed alliance with an FPÖ, without its leaders Strache and Gudenus. Despite the Ibiza scandal. Is such a thing understandable? Kurz says he understands a governing mandate to mean negotiating with all parties.
Working the Crowds
The interview being finished, he gets up and leaves — a BMW 740 series with a chauffeur is waiting for him outside. It will take him to Linz overnight and then further through Upper Austria the next morning. You’ve got to be in good shape to keep up with Kurz the campaigner, what with all his appointments and interviews. Meals are taken when there’s time, which isn’t very often. On this particular day, a quick stop at McDonald’s will have to do.
The tightly choreographed appearances are organized in such a way that the poster-boy of Austria’s new conservatism spends half his time taking photos with fans. The pictures appear on Instagram and Facebook within hours and get shared hundreds of times, the cheapest nationwide advertising campaign the digital age has to offer. In Austria, Kurz was one of the first politicians to understand this.
Kurz doesn’t refuse a single request for a quick photo as he walks through Salzburg’s famed market, the Schrannenmarkt, on a recent Thursday, smiling all the while. The distance between the people and the people’s representatives has shrunk to mere centimeters in the age of selfies. “Hello, how are you, alright?” Kurz asks. Seconds later, he’s already onto the next one. “Finally, a pop star! Only I can’t seem to remember his name…” jokes one of the merchants at the market.
In Tyrol, inside a pungently smelling livestock barn close to the Italian border, Kurz meets with a different audience, this one made up primarily of farmers. Here, he talks about his childhood days spent on his grandmother’s farm and praises the hard work of people in rural areas. He shares his current existence as an ex-chancellor in blithe anecdotes: “So, are you always going to be home so much now?” Kurz says his girlfriend asked him after seeing all the dirty dishes that had piled up in their shared kitchen.
Laughter. Applause. In the end, a standing ovation.
The Bigger They Are
“Applause can be cocaine for the soul,” says Matthias Strolz. Sitting in Vienna’s Café Museum, once frequented by the painters Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, Strolz has ordered an apple strudel. In his new book, “Be Your Own Pilot,” he describes what it feels like to no longer be front and center on the political stage. A co-founder of the economically liberal Neos party, Strolz dropped everything last year and resigned. He felt burnt out.
Strolz is one of Kurz’s most authoritative critics. He taught the former chancellor in rhetoric and political communication and Kurz still remembers one piece of advice Strolz gave to him: “He told me, ‘You have to stand there with your legs apart, like a cowboy.'” That’s right, says Strolz. “At the time, he seemed a bit slick and guileless. You found yourself wondering: ‘Did this guy even have a childhood?'”
Kurz’s advantage lies in his ability to soak everything up. “He’s like a sponge,” Strolz says. He stayed in touch with the rising ÖVP star for a long time — until their secret joint project to emulate French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement failed. Strolz doesn’t like speaking on the record about why their relationship fell apart. In one of his last addresses in parliament, he told Kurz to his face what he thought was wrong with Kurz’s migration policy: It was sad for a highly talented young politician to be behaving like a “hobby gardener who manages to set his own hedge on fire.”
What does Strolz think his former pupil is capable of? Kurz’s time will end just as “brutally” as it began, he predicts. In 2017, Kurz managed to rise rapidly through the ranks of his party, and Strolz expects his downfall to be no less dramatic. But it could be a while before it happens, Strolz says, adding that Kurz is a guarantor of success for his party and undisputedly displays “brilliant craftsmanship.”
Pandering for Votes
Not far from the “Springer Schlössl,” the political academy of the ÖVP where Kurz received his very first rhetoric lessons, is the apartment building where the politician grew up. His parents still live there today. Kurz himself now lives a bit further away, though still in the same down-to-earth district of Vienna-Meidling, located south of the Schönbrunn Palace. In the district, 46 percent of residents are of foreign origin.
If you spend time watching the children and young teenagers playing and hanging out in front of the Erlgasse Gymnasium, it’s hard not to imagine that Sebastian Kurz began thinking about immigration issues long before he became state secretary for migration or foreign minister. Many of the youths have Egyptian, Chechen and Afghan roots. Kurz went to school here, as did the top candidate for the social democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner.
“I provided guidance to both of them until they got their high school diplomas,” says the chemistry teacher Johannes Fuchs. “Both received ‘very good’ marks, though Kurz had some deductions.” In his 35 years as a teacher at this school, Fuchs says he has witnessed changes that he claims spread throughout all of Austria. Across the country, nearly a quarter of the population has an immigrant background, and every fourth student at the age of 15, according to the Neos party, is unable to adequately comprehend what they are reading.
The headscarf-ban for teachers and girls under the age of 14 that Kurz has proposed doesn’t exactly provide any answers to that statistic. Kurz knows this, but if you want to govern, sometimes you have to pander to other parties’ voters. With his call for a headscarf ban, the ex-chancellor is baiting the hook for disappointed FPÖ supporters.
Something for Everyone
Kurz’s favorite role is that of statesman, as if nothing had happened, as if he were still chancellor and not an ex-chancellor. Since losing office, he has visited Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and the heads of Apple, Netflix and Uber in Silicon Valley. Kurz gets the appointments others would like to have.
Kurz bridges the gap between the big stage and the small world where he grew up quite masterfully. “I had a normal upbringing,” Kurz says. “I was never looking to escape.” But that’s only half the story. In the words of the Vienna-based daily Die Presse, the political convictions of the ambitious ÖVP head are, “depending on one’s point of view, either contradictory or all-encompassing.” Kurz, the paper continues, presents himself as down-to-earth and cosmopolitan, economically liberal and protectionist, entrepreneurial and labor-friendly. There’s something for every voter.
It’s easier to know what the ex-chancellor wants when it comes to power and public displays of appreciation: He craves both. When he hears about a new 300-page book about his rhetorical style, the first thing he asks is: “Is it positive or negative?” Kurz doesn’t shy away from asking former chancellors or leading publicists what their perception of him is. He seeks access to leading editors in Austria and in Germany. When he’s chided in the media, he remembers the name of the person who lobbed the insult for years to come.
The longtime publisher of the Kurier newspaper, Helmut Brandstätter, who is now running as a candidate for the Neos party, says Kurz has a “unique mixture of friendly appearance and brutality.” As chancellor, the ÖVP boss tried to bend the media to his will, says Brandstätter, while his interior minister, Herbert Kickl of the FPÖ, gradually paved the way for Austria to become an authoritarian republic. Anyone who — like Kurz — permits recurring, even anti-Semitic lapses from politicians to be written off as a fringe problem makes himself complicit, Brandstätter says.
Shrewd and Unforgiving
Kurz is a gambler. When he pushed to close the Balkan refugee route, it was proof that he’s not afraid of making a big bet. He wasn’t deterred by the lack of support from either Berlin or Paris, and he was ultimately successful. With a few close advisers, many of whom have been at his side since 2011, Kurz calculates his political options and the associated risks. They discuss the wording, the spin, the sales pitch. He’s always been a step ahead of the competition from other parties.
Kurz wants to impress everyone. He hasn’t forgotten how he was mocked in his earlier years, he’s simply processed it. In 2011, satirists quipped in a late-night sketch that they had to “record the interview before the show because Mr. Kurz isn’t allowed to stay up this late.”
Today, Kurz has more than 800,000 followers on Facebook and a base of support that’s apparently unfazed by scandals. Rhetorically gifted, Kurz gives voters the feeling that they’re understood. Some recurring speech patterns of his include claiming to read people’s minds (“I know that many of you today…”) and answering questions that no one asked (“Do I dare accomplish something in this country? Yes.”)
The voters hardly blame him for the Ibiza scandal. Even the FPÖ only lost five percentage points, according to the latest polls. But who does Kurz hope to govern with come Sept. 29, when he’s likely to receive far more than 30 percent of votes? The FPÖ under Norbert Hofer has already offered itself as a potential coalition partner, though it did so in a video that could have hardly been more embarrassing: It showed the party’s leader sitting next to a Kurz lookalike at a couples counseling session while the therapist recommends giving things another try.
First Things First
Kurz has said himself that he would prefer another outcome, such as a coalition with the Green Party and, if necessary, one with the Neos as well. But how high would the price be for such an alliance? There is a real danger, according to one leading ÖVP politician, that the party could be blackmailed by “the few crazies in the Greens.”
It would probably be easier to get the steadily shrinking, humiliated Social Democrats onboard. They could provide Kurz with the necessary majority without the baggage of the FPÖ and its anti-Semitic ramblings. For Kurz, all possibilities are open. The criticism he draws for this is apparently a price he’s willing to pay. A subordinate role, for instance as parliamentary group leader of the ÖVP and the head of the opposition, isn’t something he would even consider for himself: He is said to be “not bullish enough” to be a full-time parliamentary whip.
If possible, Kurz would like to continue climbing the political ladder after his tenure as Austrian chancellor. People formerly close to him assert that Kurz has mentioned the possibility of serving one day as EU commission president in Brussels or as UN secretary general in New York. Kurz himself has denied such career plans, calling them “total nonsense.”
For now at least, his goal is to find his way back into the Chancellery. He wants to return to Ballhausplatz in the heart of Vienna.