Argument

Meet the First Millennial to Run a Western Country

Nobody knows if 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz is an establishment conservative or a far-right populist — and that’s why he’ll soon be running Austria.

Sebastian Kurz visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem during his tenure as foreign minister. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
Sebastian Kurz visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem during his tenure as foreign minister. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2010, the 24-year-old Austrian politician Sebastian Kurz shot to fame on the back of a black Humvee dubbed the “Horny-mobile,” which he drove around the streets of Vienna ahead of local elections, handing out condoms and proclaiming that black — the color of the center-right Austrian People’s Party — was “sexy.” The election was a disaster for the local party, but Kurz’s career was made.

Now, at 31 years old, the baby-faced Kurz is likely to become Europe’s youngest head of state in next week’s parliamentary elections. Barring a major electoral upset, he will be the first millennial to lead a European Union nation. Yet Kurz’s relative youth goes hand in hand with the other signal fact about him — Austrian politics, and its youth, have taken a hard swing to the right amid economic stagnation and an ongoing immigration crisis. While his bold style and unabashed conservativism have brought a sense of excitement to a once-predictable Austrian politics, Kurz has moved to revitalize a declining establishment party with a transfusion of ideas from the far right, alarming liberals around Europe who fear the destabilizing influence of right-wing populism.

Until he became foreign minister at the age of 27, Kurz’s political work focused largely on winning young people over to the center-right Austrian People’s Party (OVP) through his leadership of its conservative youth wing. But both aspects of Kurz’s early mandate — the youth part and the OVP part — posed a challenge in an era of national disaffection.

For most of Austria’s postwar period, the OVP and the center-left Social Democrats (SPO) have governed together in a grand coalition. Unlike in Germany, where a similar grand coalition was an unpopular exception to the norm, Austrians tended to prefer big-tent coalitions as a way to maximize public representation in the government. But that consensus has given way in recent years. Political gridlock, economic stagnation, and falling standards of living have alienated voters from the two center parties; catchall centrist governance is increasingly viewed as inefficient and impotent in addressing these problems. For years, a significant percentage of voters have drifted to the Freedom Party, a right-wing nationalist party founded in the 1950s. And last year, for the first time since 1945, Austrians elected a president (a largely ceremonial role) who did not hail from one of the two major parties.

Young Austrians especially don’t believe the major parties care about their concerns. The unemployment rate in Austria is an uncomfortably high 7.5 percent, and Austrian youth are disproportionately affected, with 11.6 percent of all unemployed people under the age of 25. The Freedom Party’s platform blaming these ills on a sclerotic EU, immigrants, and political elites has strong appeal for young Austrians; as early as 2010, it was polling first among Austrians under 30. This is particularly true for young men — in the 2016 presidential election, 58 percent of men aged 29 and younger voted for the Freedom Party candidate.

From the start of his career, Kurz proved more adept than his party colleagues at combating Austria’s malaise, in part because, for better or worse, he has always felt less beholden to the country’s political traditions — and more willing to adjust his pragmatism to the country’s shifting political winds. His first campaign for national office came in 2008 when he was only 21: The OVP put his name on the list of parliamentary candidates competing in Vienna, Austria’s capital — a place where the party has traditionally had trouble competing. Kurz’s candidacy was a sort of stunt, a bet by his party and himself that his local bona fides as a born-and-raised Viennese and flagrant youthfulness would draw interest from voters.

That bid was ultimately unsuccessful in electoral terms. But two years later, Kurz’s Humvee-and-condom publicity campaign launched him to national fame. It took years, however, for Kurz, who went on to become a state secretary for integration, to refurbish his reputation as a serious politician, rather than merely a political provocateur. On the eve of his appointment as Austria’s top diplomat three years later, one article in Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung still commented drily, “It is not yet known whether or not the future Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz will drive the ‘Horny-mobile’ to state visits.”

Of course, no one is laughing now. Few in Austria, including within his own party, understood how deeply his public antics were wedded to private ambition. In May, Kurz seized control of the OVP after Reinhold Mitterlehner, four decades his senior, stepped down as party chairman. Fittingly, among Kurz’s first steps as leader of OVP was a bit of rebranding: he promptly renamed the party the Sebastian Kurz List-New People’s Party and rewrote the rules for picking candidates.

“Kurz is successful in selling himself as the man of change — despite being a product of the status quo,” said Anton Pelinka, a professor of political science at the Central European University in Budapest. “His youth has helped him to overcome the contradiction that he as an insider is playing the innovator.”

Kurz’s renovation of the OVP has also included its platform. He has never espoused vehemently anti-immigrant or anti-euro policies. But, to help revive the OVP’s deficit of social and political credibility, he has channeled the vitality of Austria’s resurgent far right, targeting the majority of Austrian men his age who have drifted to the Freedom Party.

The Freedom Party, like its many right-wing populist counterparts that have gained traction throughout Europe since the migrant crisis began, is proudly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has called not just for zero immigration but for negative immigration and has demanded an “Islamization ban.”

Kurz’s position on immigration and Muslims could be seen as more democratically palatable versions of this. In 2011, Kurz was appointed state secretary for integration, in charge of making sure that new Austrians acclimated. Many of the new arrivals were, of course, Muslim, and in 2012 Kurz founded the “Dialogforum Islam” to open up conversations with Muslim communities. Calling for an “Islam of European character,” Kurz defended a 2015 law that banned foreign funding for Austrian mosques and required German-language proficiency for imams. “We want a future in which increasing numbers of imams have grown up in Austria speaking German, and can in that way serve as positive examples for young Muslims,” he said at the time. But the law also granted Muslims the right to halal food options in public schools, hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces, and the right to take off for their own religious holidays — legal protections a far-right party would never propose.

Kurz has also taken a hard line on immigration, heavily criticizing the EU for failing to control the influx of migrants since 2015 and for placing too much pressure on individual states. He has called on the EU to stop performing rescue missions in the Mediterranean, saying that they will only encourage more migrants to embark on the risky journey. And he has even suggested that the border between Italy and Austria should be closed unless Italy stops accepting undocumented immigrants. “I believe in a Europe without internal borders,” Kurz said in August. “But this only works when we manage to have functioning external borders.”

Kurz’s immigration proposals have been popular among Austrians across the conservative spectrum, including among young voters.

“My generation in Austria has shifted more towards the right than the previous generation,” said Lukas Posch, a 22-year-old Austrian law graduate and former member of the OVP’s youth wing, who met Kurz in person six years ago, when he was already, at 25 years old, a national politician. Posch approves of many of Kurz’s policies and doesn’t see him as an ideologue, but rather as a pragmatist and an expert political organizer. “Back then it did not seem like Sebastian Kurz had a big plan or big ideology.… I think over the last few years, he’s actually grown into the office.”

The latest polls ahead of the Oct. 15 parliamentary elections put the OVP at 34 percent, the euroskeptic Freedom Party at 27 percent, and the Social Democrats at a mere 22 percent – indicating that a governing coalition between Kurz’s OVP and the Freedom Party is increasingly likely. If Kurz does form such a coalition, it wouldn’t be the first time that the far-right party has been part of the national government. In 1999, it narrowly beat the OVP and joined government as the senior partner in a right-wing coalition. The prospect of a far-right party in power so alarmed the rest of the EU that it implemented diplomatic sanctions against Austria for the next several months, and Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna.

This time, however, with a continent-wide surge of right-wing populism to contend with, it’s almost impossible to imagine the EU adopting similar punitive measures this time around. The far right has become normalized in the minds of many Europeans, or at the very least viewed as a problem too big to be deterred through a slap on the wrist. And if Kurz himself isn’t actually a far-right populist, so much less to worry about.

Even if the Freedom Party doesn’t join Kurz’s government after the election, it’s clear that the far-right surge has affected Kurz and the party that buoyed him. But it’s a testimony to Kurz’s talent, and his necessarily short track record, that the precise nature of that impact remains obscure. Is Kurz sanitizing extreme ideas for general public consumption, presenting a “soft, civilized version of the far right,” as Pelinka put it? Or is he offering an example to the continent’s other center-right parties by enticing disaffected conservative voters to return to his firmly pro-democracy establishment conservative party?

Austria, and the world, will have to wait until after Oct. 15 to find out.

Correction, Oct. 11, 2017: Lukas Posch was a former member of the OVP’s youth wing, and met Sebastian Kurz about six years ago. A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Posch’s OVP youth wing membership was what allowed him to meet Kurz.

Photo credit: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola