Austrian voters have just thrown their lot firmly behind the center-right and far-right political parties, shifting the political future of the landlocked country — and potentially that of Europe itself.
At the center of Austria’s political shift is Sebastian Kurz, a 31-year-old wunderkind who rode a wave of anti-immigrant anxiety to position himself as the country’s probable next chancellor and the world’s youngest leader. (Final results won’t be in until after several hundred thousand mail-in ballots are counted.)
Kurz, who currently serves as Austria’s foreign minister, advocates a hard line on welcoming migrants. He has decried the distribution of social benefits for newcomers and noted that it was his work as foreign minister that shut down the so-called “Balkan” route asylum seekers were taking over land toward Austria and Germany. He has been accused of reaping his ideas from the country’s far-right party, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which was founded by
actual Nazis in the 1950s. But he is also seen as doing so with a softer hand, and a kinder voice.
He has also advocated for a change in tax policy — dramatically lowering taxes — which appeals to those who feel the Austrian welfare state is too much of a drain on personal coffers.
“This is a clear mandate for change,” Kurz told a rapturous crowd in Vienna on Sunday evening after polls closed. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We need to create a new political style and a new political culture.”
Who is Sebastian Kurz?
The Austrians call him Wunderwuzzi — “the whiz kid.” He took over the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in May. It was Kurz who called for snap elections in late spring, reading the political temperature and realizing the country was ripe for a political realignment toward the right.
Though the People’s Party has been around for decades, Kurz hit the party with an ambush makeover, bringing the party into the social media age. He even changed the party’s name from just the People’s Party to “The Sebastian Kurz list — The New People’s Party.” The party posters read, “Time for something new.”
He gathered up newcomers to join his political list — inviting some who had never before served in government, and began to propel the party on charisma. If that sounds like France’s Emmanuel Macron, it’s meant to — but unlike Macron, who launched a brand new political party, Kurz had the benefit of working with a party structure that’s been around for 30 years.
Kurz himself is known as much for style as for substance, with crisp suits and stylishly coiffed hair. He is unmarried (though he lives with his girlfriend).
And he’s long wanted to bring his party into the millennial era — his era, in other words.
Kurz was born in 1986. Donald Trump was married to Ivana; Ivanka was a mere 4 years old. Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, and Kurt Waldheim, a man who controversially had his own Nazi past, was campaigning to take the helm in Austria.
He was introduced on the international stage at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in 2014. He took the podium that year, all of 28 at the time, and relished in both his age and the improbability of his position. “I believe I’m the only person under the age of 30 who has the privilege of speaking this week,” he told the UNGA, to applause.
“What I can offer is the perspective of a young generation,” he continued, defining that as a “post-Cold War generation” — millennials, in other words.
“We grew up in a society where human rights were respected, where the rule of law was a given, and where religious freedom was practiced,” he intoned. “We communicate without borders on Facebook and Twitter.” He then went on to talk about the rise of religious extremism and terrorism.
But while the UNGA introduced his face, it was in 2015 that Kurz really found his footing — in the midst of the migration crisis.