The ascent was dazzling; the fall, crashing. Celebrated as a star of Austria’s conservative right, and beyond, Sebastian Kurz has been forced to leave the Chancellery embroiled in corruption suspicions less than four years after taking office for the first time. His image as an impeccable politician, educated and close to the citizen who proposed “real change” and a “new style” has been broken in a few days to draw an intriguing leader who allegedly incited his narrower circle to maneuver to control the party Christian Democrat (ÖVP) and reach power. From “child prodigy” of politics, as the tabloids baptized him, to investigated in a judicial case that has shaken the Alpine republic.
Kurz, 35, announced his resignation last Saturday in the face of a scandal that prompted his partner in the Government, Los Verdes, to demand his replacement to save the coalition. The accusations of the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office led him to a dead end. The investigation into the former foreign minister, nine close collaborators, his party and a group of media points to possible crimes of embezzlement and bribery for a plot to allegedly pay with public money for information coverage favorable to their interests and to place manipulated surveys. The investigations start around 2016, when Kurz was fighting to take over the leadership of his party. By then, he already exhibited a seemingly unstoppable career: president of the party’s youths at age 22; Secretary of State for Integration at 24 and Foreign Minister three years later. In May 2017 he already controlled the ÖVP and months later he won his first general elections and became chancellor at the age of 31.
The suspicion that this final promotion was not clean has removed Kurz – who denies having anything to do with it – from the Chancellery, not from power. After proclaiming his innocence, he took “a step backwards”, but will continue as leader of the majority party and will act as spokesman in Parliament. His replacement in office, former Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, has stressed that he will maintain a “close collaboration” with him.
The Greens have accepted the replacement to keep the Executive and carry out their projects, but the waters will not easily return to their course. The opposition – Social Democrats (SPÖ), the extreme right and liberals – denounce that it is not enough to remove Kurz, since he will continue as “shadow chancellor”. “The Kurz system is still in power,” SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner said in Parliament on Tuesday. “The new chancellor has no anchor in the party or experience in domestic politics. He will need help, but relying on Kurz is now viewed with critical eyes, ”explains Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerle, a political scientist and professor at the Higher School of Applied Sciences at the University of Carinthia over the phone.
In addition, the closed support for the leader in the party is cracking. “That support has disappeared. Regional leaders have been critical and a struggle will begin to take away their absolute power, ”predicts the expert.
The ÖVP threw itself into Kurz’s arms in 2017. It gave him carte blanche to turn it around – it changed even the color of the formation, from black to turquoise. And with a diffuse message of change, in which there was something for everyone, and the promise of a strong hand against immigration reached the Foreign Ministry. “He shone beyond the border of his party,” Vienna political consultant Thomas Hofer commented by telephone shortly before his resignation. “In the EU he was admired, he presented another interpretation of conservatism, a counter-model to Angela Merkel”, whom he criticized for leaving the borders open to refugees in 2015.
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The ‘Ibiza case’
Kurz suffered the first serious setback in May 2019, when he had to break the coalition with the extreme right after less than a year and a half in government and was dismissed by Parliament as a minority. The Ibiza case, which showed his ultra vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, in a video recorded with a hidden camera on the Balearic island while he almost sold Austria to a false Russian oligarch, allowed the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office to open several investigations related to plug-in practices and illegal financing of matches. That case did not directly affect Kurz, who again won the early elections in September 2019 with an even larger majority, and agreed his second Executive with Los Verdes.
However the Ibiza case has ended up reaching him through the messages, collected in one of the causes, from the cell phone of Thomas Schmid, a close collaborator who called himself Kurz’s “praetorian” and who, according to the investigation, fired from his position in the Ministry of Finance of all possible threads to elevate it. The Prosecutor’s Office deduces from Schmid’s messages to other collaborators the alleged publication of manipulated polls in the tabloid Austria in exchange for paying for ads. The media group denies a pact; the ex-chancellor says he knows nothing.
The messages also reveal internal intrigues. The adviser and Kurz disqualify with thick words the former leader of the ranks Reinhold Mitterlehner, who under pressure withdrew from the leadership in 2017 to make way for the infant prodigy. These messages, which hint at movements to blow up the government of the Social Democrats with the ÖVP, leave a “devastating” image, according to the green leader and vice chancellor, Werner Kogler, and have also sting in the Christian Democratic party. “But at the moment, the ÖVP sees no alternative to Kurz. Many have won with him in the elections ”, points out Stainer-Hämmerle, who does not rule out an attempt to return to power.
Can Kurz go back to the top? It depends on whether the suspicions can crystallize into a formal accusation against him, something that legal experts cited by the Austrian press see difficult for now. And also “how the population perceives him”, where Kurz has enjoyed high approval, and whether the party continues to support him, says Stainer-Hämmerle. If the case is prolonged, he adds, “you can play the role of victim, the chancellor of hearts that others want to prevent the passage.”
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