Austria’s ‘Wunderwuzzi’ on course for election win at just 31

Leader and top candidate of the Austrian Peoples Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz presents his election program for the Austrian federal elections during a press conference in Vienna, Austria, 5 September 2017. [Christian Bruna/EPA]

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”.

Bringing in candidates from outside politics – including a quadriplegic former pole vaulter and an organiser of Viennese balls – Kurz has promised a “new style” and to jumpstart the economy.

Since he took charge, the OeVP – the party name is absent from campaign posters – has leapfrogged the two other main parties and now has an opinion poll lead of around nine points.

Kurz’s nickname, the tough-to-translate “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, he said: “This is now a race for Mr Kurz to lose.”

“I think he is a very young and dynamic person who wants to bring a new style into politics,” said captivated party volunteer Michael Schellnegger, 22, his T-shirt and even his trainers in turquoise.

Moving right

The appeal of the “change” message is remarkable considering that Kurz is part and parcel of the cosy 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.

As integration and 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.

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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.

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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.

According to FPOe head Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, Kurz is “ruthless and dishonest”. His plans are “political plagiarism,” thunders it’s chief strategist.

Its response has been to move leftwards of the Social Democrats (SPOe) and the increasingly hapless-looking Chancellor Christian Kern, 51, on some social issues.

Strache and Kern’s last chance to turn things around may be their only three-way debate with Kurz in Linz on Friday (15 September), experts say.

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 “wasn’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.