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 ousted 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 only managing to place third.
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 Freedom Party (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the coalition with the right-wing FPO and their racist laws,” Hanna, a 27-year-old social worker who asked her surname not be published, told Al Jazeera.
In 2016, she began working with refugees. At that time the mood in Austria was different. Solidarity with refugees was high, with educational opportunities available and 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 for refugees and migrants. Since becoming chancellor at the end of 2017, he has worked 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.”
This critical public, along with a lively NGO and activist scene, are the biggest differences between Austria and Hungary, where anti-migrant rhetoric and policies are also dominant, said Walter Otsch, a cultural scientist and populism expert at Cusanus College. However, in his opinion, the recent video scandal has not led to a drastic change in society.
On May 17, a video was released showing two FPO leaders offering government contracts to a woman they understood to be the niece of a powerful Russian oligarch.
As a consequence, chief video protagonist Heinz-Christian Strache resigned as Austria’s vice chancellor, and his colleague, Johann Gudenus, the former FPO deputy chairman, left the party. All FPO ministers resigned from the coaliton. Kurz replaced them with technocrats.
The following day, Kurz called snap elections in September. And on Monday the chancellor and his government were dismissed by parliament in an historic vote of no confidence.
“Sebastian 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.
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“Kurz did not behave like a chancellor [in recent days],” said Otsch. “He permanently campaigned.”
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, FPO’s leader, 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.”