23 May, Tuesday


Can Austrian minister copy French election success? - Doing a Macron

Specialist view

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The French president’s feat of sweeping into high office after abandoning a traditional party and running on an independent platform is inspiring copycats elsewhere on the continent.
 
Austria’s 30-year-old foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, announced on Sunday that he would scrap the constituency selection process for his Austrian People’s party (ÖVP), which he chairs, and replace it with a gender-balanced list of independent candidates endorsed by the party.
 
National media described the move as the end of the country’s postwar political order. It came after senior officials in the centre-right party unanimously endorsed Kurz as interim leader – and effectively handed him the authority to remodel the ÖVP in his own image.
 
Kurz, who became the world’s youngest ever foreign minister in December 2013, told a press conference in Vienna: “We have decided that we are starting a movement, that we value existing strengths within the People’s party but at the same time we are bringing new people onboard.”
 
The ÖVP has been a stalwart of Austrian politics since its launch in 1945. Six of the country’s 14 postwar chancellors were from the party and it currently governs as the junior partner in a coalition with the SPÖ.
 
Kurz’s ascent to party chair was prompted by last week’s resignation of Reinhold Mitterlehner, the vice chancellor and ÖVP leader, who had failed to quell party infighting.
 
An election will be held on 15 October, party leaders said on Tuesday. Polls in recent weeks have consistently shown the rightwing populist Freedom party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, take a narrow lead over Chancellor Christian Kern’s social democrats, with Kurz’s People’s party in third place. Since Kurz enjoys high personal approval ratings, his supporters hope that with him at the helm the party will rise in the polls.
 
Born in 1986, Kurz joined the party’s youth branch in 2003, when the People’s party led a coalition with the far-right FPÖ – founded by former Nazi members and led at the time by the late Jörg Haider.
 
Resurrecting such a coalition is likely to be less of a taboo for Vienna-born Kurz than international observers might assume.
 
On policy issues, too, Kurz is likely to share more common ground than differences with the FPÖ. The foreign minister is popular with rightwing Austrian voters for lobbying neighbouring states to close the west Balkan route to refugees in March 2016, as well as his hardline stance on Turkish membership of the EU.
 
For all of Kurz’s talk of emulating Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche – the Austrian politician congratulated the former member of the French Socialist party for his defeat of “leftwing politics” in a tweet – his critics say his new movement is little more than a repackaged People’s party with added PR.
 
While the names of several high-profile figures have been mooted as potential candidates for Kurz’s list – including Irmgard Griss, a former judge who came third in last year’s presidential vote, and Sepp Schellhorn, a prominent restaurateur and member of the liberal Neos party – none have been confirmed.
 
Neos’ leader Matthias Strolz earlier this month attacked Kurz on Twitter, telling him he was “shameless and conniving”.
 
There are also questions about how feasible his political plan is: while the Austrian People’s party’s statute already allows for non-members to be included on its lists of candidates, it forbids members of other parties to run as candidates.
 
In Austria, Kurz has a reputation not just as a canny political operator but as an orchestrator of unconventional, sometimes crass PR stunts. For the 2010 Viennese state elections, he campaigned in the city with cars rebranded as “Geilomobils” – geil meaning both “cool” and “horny” in German.

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