Phenomenon of Sebastian Kurz: Why Austria goes on early elections?

Author : Viktor Savinok

Source : 112 Ukraine

New chairman of the Austrian People's Party might become "the candidate of the whole society"
14:25, 30 May 2017

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112 Agency

During the last year the whole Europe, with bated breath, was watching the presidential campaign in Austria.

And there was a serious reason for that: this small Central European country had a real chance of getting Eurosceptic as a president. Moreover, the candidate of the right Austrian Freedom Party Norbert Hofer in the second half of 2016 even with "one foot" already stood in the presidential residence in Vienna's Hofburg Palace, because being vice-chairman of the National Council, he was an acting president after socialist Heinz Fischer’s authority has been complete.

However, Austrian voters kept the intrigue until the end of the year. Finally, on December 4, after the third consecutive second round, Alexander van der Bellen was elected the head of state. By the way, this result was the first defeat of the populist, after Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory.

After 2016 year, which was full of political events this year did not seem to bode abrupt changes. However, on May 15, Chancellor, Social Democrat Christian Kern announced the dissolution of the National Council.

Related: Austrian prosecutor’s office announced that Austrian detained in Poland fought in Donbas on Ukrainian side

Early elections were scheduled for 15 October. The reason was resignation of Reinhold Mitterlehner, Vice-Chancellor and Chairman of the Austrian People's Party (APP), one of the participants of the ruling coalition.

Why Austrian politicians decided to conduct the election in such a turbulent situation, although they could work for some 1.5 year more? And most importantly, who can get the majority of the political shares of the early races?

Young conservatives face

Acting head of the Austrian Foreign Ministry and the head of the People's Party Sebastian Kurz became Secretary of State in his 24 years, at the age of 27 he became a Minister, at the age of 30 – OSCE Chairman.

Observers believe that his decision to lead the party and start fighting for the position of Chancellor was the decisive break in the "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats. Let us try to understand how he managed to get such a position.

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APP minor role in the coalition, as well as strengthening the position of Eurosceptic right Freedom Party in the presidential election (in the decisive second round in December 2016 its candidate Hofer received 48% of votes) have long been causing concern among top Austrian conservatives. The latter planned dissolution of parliament in the middle of last year, and only a protracted saga with the election of the head of state diverted this scenario.

It seemed that the party just needed an excuse to start the parliamentary campaign. And a reason was found – the debates on the establishment of a parliamentary commission to investigate high prices cases that occurred during Eurofighter procurement to the Austrian Air Force. Some cases involved leading figures from the Social Democrats, members of the government "grand coalition".

Therefore, the People's Party has passed two simple but electorally profitable decisions. First, fired Vice Chancellor Mitterlehner, who took responsibility for participation in a coalition with "Social Democrats" and party’s "voluntarism".

Related: Conflict in Ukraine is priority for Austria, - Kurtz

And besides, it made a bid for young Sebastian Kurz, who is out of political intrigues.

By the way, this APP’s filigree operation on "changing the power" left the Social Democrats without trumps. First, because the proposal on the election came not from Chancellor Kern, and, secondly, the SDs have lost their main object of criticism in the face of the former Vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner. The observers see Kurz as a hope of the People's Party. And he, judging by his first steps as a party leader, is trying to justify this hope.

Already a few hours after his inauguration party websites, social media pages, and mailings have radically changed the style. However, in one of his first statements Kurz made it clear that there would be no continuation of the "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats.

In addition, the new Conservative leader seeks to rethink the meaning of leadership in the party, giving more space to collegiality and openness in decision-making. And these steps gave the first effect, because the party ratings went up, bringing the APP to the first positions in people’s sympathies rating – 33%.

A number of factors played in favor of Kurz. First, for four years as head of the foreign ministry, he gained significant political authority, accompanied with his current OSCE Chairman position.

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Second, since 2009 until the election of party chairperson Kurz headed the youth wing. This experience gives undoubted advantages in the campaign, as the current head of the Foreign Ministry can use it to work with young and socially active voters. This will ensure not only the youth turnout in the elections, but also mobilize the electorate of the People's Party.

In addition, working in the youth wing of the party, Kurz knows the methods of Internet propaganda. It would also play in favor of his campaign. Thirdly, positive moment for the new head of the APP is also the change of authorities in the course of political power. Resignation of Mitterlehner and Kurz’s arrival were furnished as a change of generations and an attempt to "reset" the party.

On the other hand, Kurz has faced a whole mass of problems within the campaign. He would obviously have to take a pause in his foreign career and get promptly acquainted with domestic political affairs.

The new head of the People's Party should form his own election team. Observers suggest that it might be associated just with the youth part of APP, previously led by Kurz.

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Young chancellor candidate should also demonstrate his leadership the power of persuasion. They would show whether his potential voters perceive him or not.

If not the SDs, then who?

The head of the National Party faces difficult challenges. After all, more than ever again, the country now needs unity and understanding.

The presidential election campaign, which lasted for more than six months in 2016, showed an extreme degree of polarization of society. At the same time it has discovered the shortcomings of the political system, leaving candidates from conservatives and "Social Democrats" behind the race.  Therefore, APP needs some new approaches to convince the voters.

An interesting possibility is to present Kurz "the candidate of the whole society," not only from a particular party. This scenario has applied the current President of Austria Van der Bellen.

His campaign was held under the slogans of non-partisan national movement, but was full of numerous speeches in the field. The latter had to demonstrate closeness to people and understanding of their needs and problems. On the other hand, taking into consideration of the rejection coalition with the "SDs," there is only one possible option – Eurosceptic Freedom Party.

This solution requires a high degree of authority and political responsibility. In addition, it can also result in alienating voters.

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However, the negative decision of the voters regarding his campaign during the elections in October might undermine the credibility of Kurz within the party.

A similar situation occurred in early 2007 with ex-chancellor and APP chairman, Wolfgang Schüssel. The latter was forced from office to personally avoid cooperation with the Social Democrats in the new coalition and taking responsibility for the failure of his political power in elections.

Sebastian Kurz is one of "political heirs" of Schüssel. In the near future we will see whether Kurz consider the political experience errors of his teacher. His electoral failure means the end of one of the most brilliant political careers of post-war Austria.

Related: Eurosceptic mood in Europe

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