Since becoming Austria’s youngest ever chancellor in 2017, Sebastian Kurz has worked across a broad political canvas, wooing voters with one of Europe’s toughest stances on immigration and, more recently, promising a climate revolution.
But with a legal crisis now engulfing his government, Kurz risks, if not his job, at the very least a narrative that has animated a disparate — and to critics, a conviction-light — agenda of change.
Last Wednesday, Kurz, 34, announced that he expected to be charged by prosecutors for misleading a special parliamentary committee probing high-level corruption. If convicted of perjury, he could face a jail sentence. The chancellor has said he has no intention of resigning.
“This is the most serious crisis of his political career, there’s no doubt about that,” said Thomas Hofer, a prominent Austrian political commentator. “Don’t forget, he had an almost messiah-like image only a couple of years ago. That’s gone.”
Yet even if Kurz survives pressure to step down, as seems likely, this may not be the crisis’ denouement. The committee — set up after his first government collapsed amid scandal in 2019 — has subpoenaed tracts of material, including personal text messages and emails.
These have revealed how Kurz has built his power, shifting placemen into key positions across the civil service and Austria’s corporate world. Many expect more leaks — and possible charges — to come.
Added up, the picture suggests that Kurz, far from breaking the cosy, nepotistic style of postwar Austrian politics as once promised, has become one of its most assiduous students.
The faces may be younger, the suits sharper and the haircuts more immaculate. But the behind-the-scenes networks and patronage of old remain.
Kurz’s domestic travails have come at a time when his standing in Brussels is at a low ebb. When he visited Berlin in April, chancellor Angela Merkel was too busy to meet him.
Still, many have prematurely written off the chancellor before, as in 2019 after his coalition with the far-right collapsed spectacularly.
Kurz then went on to deliver one of the conservative Peoples’ party biggest electoral victories. He further confound political expectations by forging a coalition with Austria’s left-leaning Greens.
So while the current situation is bad, chancellery officials concede, the mood in the Ballhausplatz is picking up after weeks on the defensive.
Charges against Kurz are flimsy, they say. He may have equivocated in front of the investigatory committee but Kurz was recalling information from four years ago. The chancellor sends as many as 300 text messages a day, adds one adviser.
For those close to Kurz, the committee’s work and the parallel investigations of state prosecutors are little more than a political witch-hunt. Apparently the chancellor’s base see it that way too.
Support for his People’s party has slid from its high last year of around 42 per cent to about 35 per cent now. But that is still far ahead of the Social Democrats, with 22 per cent, and the rightwing Freedom party, on 17 per cent.
Moreover, Kurz’s advisers believe support has hit a floor. Internal polling conducted in recent days, one told the Financial Times, indicates it is holding in the low 30s.
The fall in support to date, they also believe, is as likely to have been caused by the pandemic as by corruption headlines. With a vaccination rate that now beats most EU peers, and the economy opening up, the government is confident of a bounceback.
Perhaps most reassuringly for the chancellor, the opposition parties are increasingly divided. The Social Democrats have gained political ground but divisions over the party’s leadership continue to rankle.
The Freedom party appears to be in the throes of an early leadership crisis and still has not recovered from its 2019 poll drubbing. Hardliner Herbert Kickl — a sworn enemy of Kurz — has signalled he would like to front the party instead of the more moderate leader, Norbert Hofer.
As for the Greens, while deeply uncomfortable with propping up Kurz’s government in coalition, are still chastened by their electoral wipeout in 2017. Collapsing the government could consign them to the wilderness again and see the far-right re-enter power.
Indeed, this Wednesday the party indicated it would probably not vote to support an extension of the parliamentary investigatory committee’s work beyond July. An end to its work would be a respite for the government.
Still, Kurz’s domination of the scene — and his narrative of victimhood — has come at a cost. Kurz’s style has emotionalised Austrian politics, say critics, with the result that it has become dysfunctional and populist in tone.
“The current situation is not really about the opposition versus the government,” said Stephanie Krisper, an MP for the liberal NEOS party and a key member of the parliamentary investigatory committee. “It’s about Sebastian Kurz’s People’s party versus the fundamental rule of law.”
Krisper accuses Kurz of “cronyism” and stoking a bitter media war that is corroding democracy in the country. “The chancellor is [undermining] the institutions of the state — the prosecutor’s office, parliament and even the Supreme Court.”
Those close to the chancellor concede they would like the situation to de-escalate so the focus can return to getting things done in government.
Yet the reality is that, 18 months after his re-election and a pandemic that has, in Kurz’s own words, “destroyed” plans for fiscal reform and restraint, his government has very little of substance to show for itself — other than a criminal probe into the chancellor.