Austria’s ousted chancellor plots September comeback

For 17 months, it looked as though Sebastian Kurz had found the recipe to contain resurgent far-right populists: governing with them.

But on Monday his chancellorship of Austria — secured through a coalition between his moderate conservatism and the far-right Freedom party — drew to an abrupt close.

In an emergency session of parliament, the 32-year-old Mr Kurz cut an embattled figure as legislators from the left and far-right took turns to denounce him. After three hours of censure, a majority in the lower house rose from their seats to support a motion of no confidence, and Mr Kurz’s tenure was over.

Yet opinion is divided on the extent of the political damage to Mr Kurz. On the eve of his departure, his People’s party secured a big victory in the European elections, increasing its share of the vote by 8 percentage points to 35 per cent.

A snap national election will take place in September and even Mr Kurz’s opponents say the youthful politician, who was nominated by his party on Wednesday as its lead candidate in the forthcoming polls, is likely to do well — perhaps building on Sunday’s poll triumph.

“There is a big question, for many Austrians, why things have evolved as they have,” Karin Kneissl, Austria’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times. “According to the polls, around 70 per cent of Austrians would have preferred to see the government remain.”

Despite the efforts of his political opponents, the former chancellor has not been personally tarnished by the so-called Ibiza affair, the scandal that set in train the current government crisis.

Mr Kurz threw the Freedom party out of the coalition, calling September’s election and hoping to rule by minority in the interim after German media published a video showing Freedom party leader Heinz-Christian Strache offering government contracts to individuals posing as a Russian oligarch’s representatives.

In ousting Mr Kurz, however, opposition lawmakers preferred to concentrate on their personal grievances with the “slim-fit” chancellor, as those who balk at his slick manner have dubbed him. The opposition Social Democrats blame Mr Kurz for legitimising the far-right by bringing them into government while the Freedom party accuses Mr Kurz of betrayal. Both parties criticise Mr Kurz of being authoritarian.

“Mr Chancellor, you cannot enforce confidence,” said Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the Social Democrats in parliament on Monday, accusing Mr Kurz of “an unrestrained, shameless power grab”. The Freedom party’s Herbert Kickl said Mr Kurz’s attempt to stay in power was “disgusting”.

Many Austrian voters, however, have welcomed Mr Kurz as a pragmatist willing to put an end to decades of underachieving centrist coalitions. Seasoned politicians doubt attacks on Mr Kurz’s character will damage his chances of returning to power.

Mr Kurz will, in all likelihood, be the next chancellor, Hannes Swoboda, a prominent Social Democrat and former president of the European Parliament’s main left of centre bloc told the FT.

“The problem for the Social Democrats [in Austria] is that they have to fight somebody who is highly popular still,” Mr Swoboda said. “And he will use the no confidence vote to claim he is the victim of party politics.”

The greater threat to Mr Kurz is likely to come from the right, with former Freedom party ministers using knowledge from their time in government to try to discredit him.

Analysis of voting in Sunday’s European elections — which saw a surge in turnout to 58 per cent, from 44 per cent — suggests Mr Kurz has emerged stronger from the controversy. A survey released by state broadcaster ORF shows he held on to 90 per cent of People’s party voters from 2014 and won the backing of more than 19 per cent of 2014 Freedom party voters.

He attracted by far the largest portion of any party of first-time voters and more female voters — 36 per cent of them supported the Peoples’ party on Sunday, compared with 26 per cent for the Social Democrats and 10 per cent for the Freedom party. Most voters, though angered by the Ibiza scandal, cited social security, climate change and immigration as their biggest concerns — issues Mr Kurz has been savviest in addressing.

“Make no mistake he didn’t want this to happen ,” said Thomas Hofer, a political consultant in Austria, referring to Mr Kurz’s ousting. “Of course it hurts. It’s a setback. You could see from his face that this isn’t just something he can shrug off, but it’s very important to understand that he also expected this.”

Critics say his tendency has been to use political manoeuvres to trap his political opponents — and allies — rather than persuade them. While that strategy has been successful, it has also burnt bridges, and left him exposed. Winning an outright majority is only a distant possibility: Mr Kurz will have to find partners, analysts say.

But his campaign for September is already well under way. Just hours after the no confidence motion, Mr Kurz was on a stage in Meidling, the district of Vienna in which he grew up, delivering a speech to more than 2,000 party faithfuls.

“This was not spontaneous,” Mr Hofer said. “They had this planned for days. They are already poll monitoring. It’s all in action.”




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