VIENNA (Reuters) - Sebastian Kurz, the new leader of Austria’s conservative party, may only be 30 but he’s calling the shots in Austrian politics, forcing a snap election in which he plans to take the fight to the far-right Freedom Party on its own turf.
For Kurz, Europe’s youngest foreign minister, it is far from his first political tussle, or his most formidable opponent.
An early critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-border policy as Europe’s migration crisis bit, he infuriated Berlin when he brokered the closure of the Balkan route into Europe. But today he can claim the plaudits for a move few now question, even in Germany.
Kurz took charge of Austria’s foreign ministry in 2013 aged 27 and on Sunday became leader of the centre-right People’s Party (OVP) - a meteoric rise for a politician who never finished his law degree. His tough line on immigration and a debonair manner have been cornerstones of his success.
Kurz is everywhere in the media, relentlessly on-message and often in his uniform of a slim-fitted suit, open-collared shirt and slicked-back hair.
But beneath the boyish looks lies a conservative Roman Catholic whose views often overlap with those of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which accuses him of stealing its ideas.
OVP elders laud him as an “exceptional political talent”. Coalition colleagues in Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPO) describe him as a scheming media hog.
“He has done what no one from the OVP has ever done before, namely steal the FPO’s thunder,” one senior OVP politician said of Kurz, who earned government colleagues’ grudging respect as a junior minister in charge of integrating immigrants.
On Kurz’s shoulders now fall his party’s hopes of defeating the far right in the election. Opinion polls show the OVP trailing in third place behind the Freedom Party and SPO, with about 20 percent support. Some surveys, however, show Kurz can catapult them into first place and erode FPO backing.
He frequently reminds his audience that he denounced the open-border policy, or “welcoming culture”, of Merkel and Werner Faymann, who was Austrian chancellor in 2015.
He says migrants rescued in the Mediterranean should be returned to Africa to discourage them from attempting the perilous sea crossing.
“We could save ourselves these in-between phases if there were not an automatic reflex to say ‘no’ to each of my proposals for purely emotional reasons,” he told newspaper Die Presse this month.
Polls show he is the most popular choice for chancellor. In a Unique survey for Profil magazine last month, 50 percent of respondents said they would prefer him to Kern, the incumbent, in a head-to-head contest. Kern, who is far more popular than FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, scored 37 percent.
Although he rose through his party’s ranks, Kurz seems to have drawn some inspiration from France’s newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron, who built his campaign on being a political outsider.
Kurz on Sunday announced plans to launch a “movement” that will include political newcomers on the OVP’s list of candidates, and will carry his name and that of the “New People’s Party”.
Kern has accused Kurz of failing to honour commitments made by the coalition. Kurz has before angered his party’s coalition partners by announcing initiatives to the media before informing them.
Politically active from the age of 10, Kurz joined the OVP’s youth wing in Vienna in 2003. After a year of military service, he became its national head in 2009, pushing local issues such as a round-the-clock subway service.
His criticism of Merkel and his defence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s border fences have shown he is not afraid to go it alone. But he is untested at the highest level on a wide range of issues, not least the economy.
“Kurz is a product of fair weather,” veteran Greens lawmaker Peter Pilz said. “For the first time Kurz now has to leave the shelter of his office for a place where two seasoned competitors are waiting for him in Kern and Strache.”
Additional reporting by Michael Shields in Zurich and Kirsti Knolle and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna; editing by Francois Murphy and Richard Lough