Austria’s Kurz was the golden boy for Europe’s conservatives. Then came scandal.
By Denise Hruby and Loveday Morris,
Lisi Niesner Reuters
VIENNA — Former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz was once seen by Europe’s conservatives as the bright young hope for the future.
His rise was remarkable: He was just 24 when he entered government as secretary of state for integration in 2011, and at 27, he became the country’s youngest-ever foreign minister. Four years later, he was chancellor and the youngest head of government in the world.
But the graft investigation that forced his resignation over the weekend places him at the center of a cabal that embezzled state funds to deceive the public and his own party, all to pave his way to power.
To preserve the ruling coalition — at least for the moment — the country’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, was sworn in as chancellor on Monday.
Kurz’s fall is seen as a major blow to Europe’s conservatives, many of whom considered him a charismatic role model, packaging hard-line conservative values under a slick, media-savvy veneer. The loss comes at a time when the center right across Europe is struggling amid scandals and collapsing support, leaving politics increasingly fragmented.
In France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been engulfed by corruption allegations, most recently being sentenced to a year in prison for illegal campaign financing. The conservative Republicans party he founded is struggling to find its footing ahead of next year’s elections.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are also in crisis, with her beleaguered party successor last week indicating that he also may be ready to step aside after leading the conservative bloc last month to its worst election results ever.
In the wake of those results, some in the party had called for it to remodel itself more along the lines of Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party: sleeker, younger and more dynamic.
But then came the dramatic raids on Kurz’s party offices, the Finance Ministry and other locations on Wednesday and prosecutors’ revelation that the chancellor and members of his inner circle were accused of spending state funds for “sometimes manipulated surveys . . . in the interest of a political party and its top management.”
Kurz, who has denied all allegations, stepped down three days before facing a confidence vote in parliament.
“Perhaps this is the end of the big people’s parties,” said Peter Hajek, a political analyst with Public Opinion Strategies in Vienna. “Since the ’70s and ’80s, there’s been a long process of voters distancing themselves from these traditional parties,” he said, adding that personality politics around Merkel in Germany and Kurz in Austria may have cushioned the slide.
Pressure on Kurz had mounted last week, as Austrian papers printed details of some 300,000 emails and text messages that came to light after the prosecutor’s office filed a 500-page court document outlining the case against the chancellor and nine others.
The conversations show that even though Kurz fashioned himself as a selfless politician while foreign minister in 2016 and 2017, he was actually working to undermine his own party’s leadership.
Experts say the messages offer rare insights into not just corruption and efforts to control public opinion, but also intraparty backstabbing.
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, previously the foreign minister, speaks after his swearing-in on Oct. 11 in Vienna.
They provide a backdrop to the accusations that Kurz’s allies used federal funds to pay a political researcher to create polls that showed plummeting support for party leader and national vice chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner. Those Kurz allies are accused of then bribing a media outlet to publish the polls.
According to the prosecution, in January 2017, Thomas Schmid, who was then general secretary at the Finance Ministry and is now accused of setting up the deal for Kurz, sent messages to a ministry colleague saying he was thrilled over the “tool” of the falsified polls. He called the paid coverage in the tabloid Österreich a “genius investment.”
“Whoever pays gives the orders,” Schmid writes, followed by: “I’m loving it.”
Österreich, or “Austria” in English, is a daily newspaper distributed free near public transit and supermarkets; it is linked to a 24-hour TV news channel, Oe24, which can keep news in rotation for days. It has denied the accusations.
Two months later, Schmid described a researcher’s polling results, which showed the party in third place, as “the way we want them to be” — setting the stage for Kurz to come to the rescue.
Kurz, who was ready to take over the party, replied: “Good poll, good poll :).” A month later, he became the new boss.
Kurz has bounced back from scandal in the past. In 2019, in the wake of the “Ibiza affair” — involving a far-right party that was part of Kurz’s ruling coalition — he became the first postwar chancellor to be ousted in a no-confidence vote.
Seven months later, he was back in power after winning new elections. Now, even as he loses power for a second time, opposition politicians and experts say he will continue to pull the strings.
“Sebastian Kurz is a chancellor in the shadows,” Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, said Saturday.
In his first statement after being sworn in as chancellor Monday, Schallenberg said that it would be “absurd” not to work closely with his predecessor.
“I am consciously making one thing clear from the very beginning: I will, naturally, work very closely with Sebastian Kurz, the leader of the new People’s Party, the largest party in parliament, under whom the People’s Party has fought two national elections successfully,” he said.
Kathrin Stainer-Hämmerle, a politics professor at the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences, says she still thinks Kurz will be looked to as a model by other conservatives.
“He was the one who promised a ‘new style,’ but we are now seeing that his methods weren’t fair,” she said, adding that his smoothly packaged, pragmatic style that has pandered to the far right might still be emulated.
“I am afraid that the biggest lesson will be that chat messages won’t be saved anymore,” she said.
Morris reported from Berlin.