, Graz, Austria, Sep 15 – Tall, tanned and only 31, Austria’s rising political star Sebastian Kurz oozed confidence as he strode to blaring pop music into Graz’s main square — seemingly with good reason.
“October 15 is our chance for change in this country,” Kurz told the recent election rally in Austria’s second city, white-shirted and tieless in his trademark slim-fit suit.
“And dear friends, to be honest, it is time for change.”
Kurz looks on course to become the European Union’s youngest head of government when this wealthy but increasingly disgruntled Alpine country of 8.75 million people votes in a month’s time.
Since becoming head of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP) in May, Kurz has re-branded it — in turquoise — as his personal “movement”, promising a “new style” of politics.
The OeVP — although the party name is absent from his campaign posters — has leapfrogged the two other main parties and now has an opinion poll lead of around nine points.
Kurz’s nickname, “wunderwuzzi”, means someone who can “walk on water”, political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP.
Calling him Austria’s most talented politician since Joerg Haider in the 1980s and 90s, Hofer said: “This is now a race for Mr. Kurz to lose.”
– Moving right –
The appeal of the “change” message is remarkable considering that Kurz is part and parcel of the political establishment that he wants to shake up.
The former head of the party youth wing has been in the government since 2011 and the OeVP has been in power for 30 years — almost as long as Kurz has been alive.
Part of his success has been because Kurz has taken a hard line on immigration, attracting voters away from the far-right who until recently topped the polls, experts say.
As foreign minister, Kurz claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016 and wants to cut social security benefits for immigrants — even those from the EU.
“We were right to close the Balkan route and I will fight for the Mediterranean route to be closed too,” he said in Graz, generating the biggest cheer of the evening.
One supporter, a 55-year-old nurse called Barbara, reflects the views of many Austrians when asked what her number one concern is.
“Asylum-seekers,” she shoots back.
Kurz’s rightwards tack has incensed the FPOe, which came close to winning the presidency last year. Many of the two parties’ policies, and even their slogans, are almost identical.
The FPOe’s response has been to move leftwards of the Social Democrats (SPOe) and the increasingly hapless-looking Chancellor Christian Kern, 51, on some social issues.
“I can see that Kurz is becoming a fan of mine,” FPOe head Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, said on Friday in the campaign’s only debate between him, Kurz and Kern.
– Haider 2.0? –
But the FPOe is far from out. To become chancellor Kurz could well form a coalition with them after the OeVP’s two successive and unhappy “grand coalitions” with the centre-left SPOe.
The last time this happened was in 2000 when the FPOe was led by the flamboyant but controversial Haider, prompting outcry in Israel and ostracism in Europe.
This time though, the reaction is likely to be muted, thanks to a softening of the FPOe’s message and also the rise of other populist parties across Europe.
The FPOe “weren’t a bad partner then and they can be a partner again in the future”, Andreas Kinsky, 50, OeVP party chief in the town of Weiz, told AFP.
The other outcome may be yet another “grand coalition” of the OeVP and the SPOe, and in Friday’s debate Kurz and Kern sidestepped a demand by Strache to rule this out.
“The party that comes first should be given the job of forming a government and consider with which party the most can be achieved,” Kurz said.
“We are not ruling anybody out.”