Vienna, Austria – He was the youngest chancellor Austria ever had – a prodigy, many thought. But on Monday, 32-year-old Sebastian Kurz and his government were removed from power.
His re-election in September does seem likely, however, having come top in the country’s European election results, with his former coalition partners, the Freedom Party (FPO), only managing to place third.
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Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party is especially strong among voters older than 60. But among the under-29s, the party finished fourth behind the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the FPO, with many blaming the young conservative leader for empowering the far right in Austria.
Last Thursday, about 5,000 protesters – an array of students, social workers and the Grannies Against the Right organisation – gathered in front of his party’s headquarters.
“I want his resignation because Kurz is co-responsible for the coalition with the right-wing FPO and their racist laws,” Hanna, a 27-year-old social worker who asked her surname not be published, told Al Jazeera.
Hanna had begun working with refugees in 2016, a time when the mood in Austria was different. Solidarity with refugees was high, educational opportunities were available and there was no shortage of volunteers to help.
A year later, things changed. Kurz, then Austria’s foreign minister, repeatedly demanded the closing of the Mediterranean Sea route to refugees and migrants. At the end of 2017, he became chancellor and has continued working in the same asylum-hostile direction as his far-right coalition partner FPO, said Hanna.
“Many institutions have been closed down, access to German-language courses are limited and people are being retraumatised by the long wait in the asylum process. His policies are fuelling hatred, and hatred is best soil for radicalisation.”
‘Good at presenting himself’
Kurz and his coalition faced a recent video scandal that, while sensational, did not lead to a drastic change in their standing, according to Walter Otsch, a cultural scientist and populism expert at Cusanus College.
On May 17, a video – secretly recorded in July 2017 – was released by German media outlets and caused an uproar in Austrian politics.
In it, Heinz-Christian Strache, a leading FPO politician who became vice chancellor of Austria later that year, and deputy FPO chairman Johann Gudenus could be seen speaking for hours to a woman they believed to be the niece of a powerful Russian oligarch.
In the course of the long conversation, the two FPO leaders offered to fix lucrative government contracts in favour of the woman.
In the aftermath of the scandal, Strache resigned as Austria’s vice chancellor and Gudenus left the party, which precipitated a mass resignation of all FPO ministers from the governing coalition.
Kurz, forced to replace the ministers with technocrats, called for snap elections that are set to happen in September.
On Monday, the minority opposition Social Democratic party brought a vote of no confidence against Kurz and his government in parliament which resulted in their dismissal.
In spite of his losses in domestic politics, Kurz “is incredibly good at presenting himself in public,” said Otsch.
In the European Elections on Sunday, neither Kurz’s party nor the FPO seemed damaged by the scandal. According to Isa and Sora, opinion research institutes, the government crisis in Austria played only a limited part in voting decisions.
The People’s Party led the country with 34.9 percent of the vote. FPO finished third (17.2 percent), behind the Social Democrats (23.4 percent).
Despite his resignation, Strache received more than 40,000 votes and announced on Facebook he would take a seat in the European Parliament. A few minutes later, he deleted his post.
“Strache has kept the FPO together and led the party like a family,” said Otsch. “This impression does not change because of a video scandal. Personal loyalty remains, no matter what he does.”
Strache’s comeback is all but assured, he concluded.
“In my opinion, after the snap elections, a coalition between the People’s Party and FPO is very likely. The horror of the video [only lasted] a short time.”