In a bold move that created a political list eponymously named after himself, the 30-year old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz broke up Austria’s entrenched political order. He re-centered the conservative party – which had been in urgent need of reform – towards himself. This appraisal seeks to identify some factors of the continued success Kurz had been enjoying ever since he entered high governmental posts at the age of 24, but it also raises questions about how personalized politics further weakens the Austrian political parties.
An eye-popping move is shaking up Austria’s politics: In the middle of May 2017, the 30-year old and steadily popular Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz announced to create a non-partisan ‘Liste Sebastian Kurz’. In other words, the ambitious young politician is “doing a Macron”, as the Guardian commented with reference to Emmanuel Macron’s success in the French presidential elections, which he had won with a person-centered grouping outside conventional party politics.
Increasingly Personalized Politics in Austria
Sebastian Kurz’s new political movement breaks up symptomatic infightings within the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). This party comprises of a heterogenous mix of territorial- and issue-centered associations, each of which holds informal veto-power regarding major decisions. The complex structure had been seriously infecting the party’s ability to steer through the political landscape.
Now Kurz took over the party chairmanship by conditioning a concentration of strong veto- and executive powers. He also required a female quota of 50% for the ÖVP’s lists of candidates, and obtained permission to campaign as the ‘List Sebastian Kurz – the new People’s Party’ which would invite anyone to participate regardless of party affiliations. In an unusual sign of unity, he immediately obtained consent from almost all senior ÖVP members.
Kurz’s boldness refocuses Austrian politics towards individual personalities, a move which reinforces (partly distressing) questions about the erosion of political parties in democracies. Other Austrian parties have not been immune from personalized politics. A similar approach can be perceived about the Social Democrats (SPÖ), centered around Chancellor Christian Kern (whose hagiographic biography was published soon after Kurz’s takeover), and, more blatantly, the right-wing populist Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) Heinz-Christian Strache. However, Sebastian Kurz’s step has gone the furthest; no one else had safeguarded personal power concessions in a formal act that spawned an eponymous grouping.
Sebastian Kurz is gambling high. Parliamentary elections are called for October 15th 2017. So far, the conservative ÖVP from which Kurz emerged is only ranked three in public opinion polls, behind the FPÖ and the SPÖ, both of which may be tacitly eying a joint coalition to the detriment of the ÖVP. All the opponents now attack Sebastian Kurz for his “shameless” power-grabbing move. They have good reasons to be nervous. Kurz can leverage his popularity towards a potential victory for high office in autumn.
Two factors may explain Sebastian Kurz’s success. One is the relatively secure political path he has taken so far; and the other is his ability to break up the paralyzing nostalgia which had been pervading the two main parties of Austria. His new undertaking, however, will expose him to ever more challenging tasks. And, more importantly, it raises fundamental questions about whether the replacement of political parties by ‘strong men’ is democratically desirable.
The Secure Path of an Outsider
In 2011, the 24-year old Kurz was sworn in as the federal Under-Secretary (Staatssekretär) for Integration. An anecdote tells us that Michael Spindelegger, at that time Vice-Chancellor and chairman of the ÖVP, had summoned Kurz just the evening before the new governmental team was to be announced. After confronting the young student with the offer to such a high governmental post, Kurz immediately responded with a clear No. He hit back with all the arguments that he correctly foresaw: He would be accused of being too immature, inexperienced, and of having campaigned with a provocative “Schwarz ist geil” for the conservative youth league (“Black is geil”, ‘geil’ meaning both cool and horny, and black referring to the party’s color).
Nocturnal hours of back-and-forth arguments transformed the initial “Nein” turned into a hesitant “Ja, aber…“ (“Yes, but…”). The ÖVP, which at that time could hardly display any first-tier politicians below the age of fifty, faced a crisis of ever-declining popularity, and had to cling on young hopes such as Sebastian Kurz.
Kurz was the conspicuous ‘Other’ in an almost gerontocratic political area. He was also the Other within his own party. He was raised in the Viennese district of Meidling, often characterized as a labourer- and migrant-rich area. He did not enter any of the elite gymnasiums which tend to provide reliable sources for the ÖVP. He has never been a member of the Catholic student fraternities almost obligatory among young conservatives in Austria. In this role as the Other, the 24-year old took over the highest responsibility to integrate migrants into Austria’s society – integrating those regarded as even stranger Others.
In 2014, in another strategic move that sought to rejuvenate the ÖVP and Austrian politics, the now 27-year old Sebastian Kurz was appointed the youngest Foreign Minister in the world. In the next three years, he would constantly be ranked among the most popular politicians in Austria.
An Austrian ambassador told me once that nothing could be more harmless to Sebastian Kurz than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was the only ministry in which an aspiring politician of his age could safely enjoy the bureaucracy’s backing. “Diplomats are used to interact with the strange, with the foreign, with the Other. The most fundamental task of diplomacy is to respect Others – other countries, other cultures, and, yes, other generations. We diplomats are predisposed to accepting him and subordinating ourselves to him; other ministries – economy, justice, defense – might have had a much harder time.”
Putting Austrian Politics ‘En Marche’
Another factor of success may have been Sebastian Kurz’s young age – he embodies the young and new generation aspiring to modernize much of Austria’s backward political culture. Since 1945, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the conservatives (ÖVP) had largely monopolized Austrian politics in a ‘two-and-a-half party system’, with the last half referring to the populist right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ).
However, the two core parties’ power had been gradually eroding. The elections in 2013 gave them a joint share of 50,8% of votes – a record low – and during the presidential elections of 2016 and 2017, neither entered the final run-off. Instead, the hitherto relatively marginal Green candidate Alexander van der Bellen faced and defeated the right-wing FPÖ’s Norbert Hofer.
Both the ÖVP and the SPÖ have their roots in the 19th century. Their members are regularly accused of living in nostalgic pasts. Each May 1st, the SPÖ ritualistically sings the Marxist-Socialist anthem the ‘Internationale’, which outsiders deride as hilariously outdated. The ÖVP, on the other hand, is informally affiliated with powerful Catholic student fraternities such as the ÖCV (Österreichischer Cartellverband) and the KÖL (Katholisch-Österreichische Landsmannschaften). Their coat-of-arms-decorated halls usually exhibit portrays of former Habsburg rulers with prayers to the beatified Emperor Charles I of Austria. Maps of Austria-Hungary and engraved allegories of a putti-filled ‘pietas austriaca’ are passionately collected among these conservative groups.
Sebastian Kurz, in contrast, embodies an aggiornomento to a political area which has been inhabited by the ‘same old men’ for decades. His means of communicating with publics via Twitter is in a glaring opposite to the decades-old provincial leaders who half-ironically call themselves territorial princes (Landesfürsten) and who annually rank nostalgic Baroque exhibitions about the imperial era among their grandest projects.
A Challenging Future and Fundamental Questions to Democracy
Having left a relatively secure path, and having broken up the organizational norms of the conservative party, the future may prove to be less harmless. Sebastian Kurz largely remained unscathed during numerous political and factional struggles in his formative years of the twenties – an age during which sins would be easily forgiven. However, now having reached the early thirties, and having started to be ‘en marche’ towards the high office, he will be confronted with stricter standards.
Indeed, his rivals are becoming more offensive than ever. The most vociferous among them is the current Chancellor from the SPÖ, Christian Kern. Kurz also faced heavy attacks from Matthias Strolz, the leader of the new NEOS party which also seeks to add refreshments into Austrian politics. Both nervously accuse him of shameless power-grabbing. His most recent “Ja, aber …” with which he accepted the chairmanship of the ÖVP was not a hesitant one, but signaled a strong assertiveness. In contrast to the 24-year old’s, the 30-year old’s “aber” did not introduce objections, but conditions. And these conditions made him unprecedently powerful within the conservative party, and it is no wonder that they expose him to accusations that may go much more ad hominem than he has been used to.
Moreover, heading a new political association means that Sebastian Kurz will need to expand the list of his agenda. It will not only cover issues of integration and foreign affairs, but many more about which he had remained silent in public – economy, social policies, defense and other difficult domains. The public still does not know what he stands for in these matters. Even for salient issues from his own domains – the refugee crisis – there was not always clarity to be found. For example, he repeatedly referred to the need for a European solution, without illuminating the direction such a move should head to – albeit, admittedly, significant initiatives such as the closure of the Balkan Route carry his stamp. But often, his tactics resembled a comfortable ‘Europeanizing’ delegation of fundamental decisions by deliberatively avoiding clear-cut statements. In short, there is still much unpredictability about Kurz’s intended policies.
Most importantly, what are the implications if Austrian party politics have increasingly crystallized towards single personalities – Christian Kern for the SPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache for the FPÖ, and now Sebastian Kurz for the ÖVP, who seems to go furthest by even deviating from conventional party politics towards a formally non-partisan list à la Macron? What is the role of substantive issue discussions in a democracy, if policy preferences are not aggregated, expressed and pursued within the predictable channels of political parties anymore? What does it mean for a democracy if popular personalities increasingly replace crisis-stricken parties?