Austria Election: Center-Right Party Head Likely Next Prime Minister

Oct 15, 2017
Originally published on October 15, 2017 8:46 pm

Update, 12:10 p.m., ET:

Preliminary results show Austrian voters have given the right-leaning party of their 31-year-old foreign minister a mandate to form the next government, but not enough to run Austria without partnering with another party.

Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become the next Austrian chancellor, would be Europe's youngest leader. The popular foreign minister is said to be an avid hiker and windsurfer.

At a campaign appearance Oct. 13 in his hometown of Vienna, young people jostled to get close to Kurz, a scene Austrian journalist Gernot Bauer says is quite common.

The irony is not lost on the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party of Austria, which preliminary results show had its best results in history and was the second highest vote getter.

Nevertheless Kurz could ask the Freedom Party to join him in governing as his party appears to have failed to get a majority of the votes.

That prospect drew criticism from top Jewish leaders, including the World Jewish Congress. (WJC)

"It is sad and distressing that such a platform should receive more than a quarter of the vote and become the country's second party," said WJC president Ronald S. Lauder."It is still full of xenophobes and racists and is, mildly put, very ambiguous toward Austria's Nazi past. My only hope is that they won't end up in government."

A rock star campaign that was 20 percent selfies

"He's like a pop star," said Bauer, who is national desk editor at the Austrian news magazine Profil. "He's like Justin Bieber, it takes hours (and) people want to make selfies with him. I think 20 percent of his campaign was just making photos and selfies. And this is also something that is a little bit criticized, because we don't know much about him."

What is known is that Kurz's center-right Austrian People's Party had consistently led in opinion polls since he took over in May. He grew up in the working-class Vienna neighborhood of Meidling, where he still lives. His mother was a teacher and his father was a manager, said his friend and fellow party official, Gernot Bluemel.

"He was raised with the idea that if you work hard, if you play by the rules, then you can achieve your goals you can realize your dream," said Bluemel, who heads the Vienna branch of the Austrian People's Party. "In a country where the level of taxes is being raised higher and higher, this dream is becoming more and more unrealistic."

Kurz is determined "to make this dream possible again," Bluemel added.

Kurz has hard stance on refugees and immigration

The foreign minister has worked hard to rebrand his political party as an agent for change, even though it's been part of the Austrian government for the past three decades. Its new moniker is the "New People's Party," and the faction's traditional black color has been replaced with a more trendy turquoise.

What hasn't changed is Kurz's hard stance on refugees and immigration. In 2015, he vehemently opposed opening European Union borders to a million mostly Muslim asylum seekers and migrants, who streamed into Austria and points north and west. Such uncontrolled immigration causes security problems for Austria, he said during the recent Vienna campaign stop.

Kurz also supports curbing benefits for new arrivals, and making them learn German and adapt to local customs.

"He introduced 'integration by effort,' so that everybody is welcome here in Austria who is willing to make a contribution, to work for himself, to pay taxes, to play by the rules," Bluemel said. "And that was a way that was not so common in Austria then, but he made it popular."

A strong economy, but an election focused on change

During the recent campaign stop, Kurz told the crowd: "Please give us your vote so we have the power to make real change."

Bauer said change has been the mantra of this election, even though the Austrian economy is booming, jobs are up and unemployment is down. The election is being held a year earlier than originally scheduled after the current governing coalition fell apart.

"Maybe like everywhere in Europe, there's a feeling of insecurity over globalization," Bauer explained. Austrian parents used to say their children were better off than they were, "and now all the polls say that for the first time, parents are afraid their children might not be as well off as they are.

"Austria is a rich country. We don't have so many big problems, but still there is a desire for change — and Sebastian Kurz, he symbolizes this desire for change because he's fresh, though he is the longest serving minister in the actual government right now."

European leaders nervously watching Austria's election

The last time the two parties formed a government in Austria in 2000, objections to the Freedom Party — which originally was headed by a former Nazi — spurred widespread international criticism and EU sanctions. But such a backlash is not likely this time, as the party has toned down its approach and more EU member state governments are shifting to the right.

Bluemel added Kurz and their party will keep any coalition partner in check.

"The crucial point is we are pro-European," Bluemel said. "So we would never accept an anti-European course in the government coalition. We would never accept an anti-Semitic course in government. Never, ever, ever."

Still, many European leaders are nervously watching Sunday's election, especially because Austria is scheduled to take over the EU presidency next year.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Austria today, voters went to the polls to elect a new government that many expect will be more right-wing and led by a man who would be Europe's youngest leader. Preliminary results give the lead to Austria's current foreign minister, a 31-year-old who, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, is seen as something of a rock star.

(APPLAUSE)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Many Austrians are visibly drawn to Sebastian Kurz and his youthful good looks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEBESTIAN KURZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He seems to enjoy their adoration and takes his time working the crowd on this recent morning in his hometown of Vienna. One Austrian journalists who covers Kurz is Gernot Bauer of the news magazine Profil.

GERNOT BAUER: He's like a pop star. He's like Justin Bieber. It takes hours for him - people who want to make selfies with him. I think 20 percent of his campaign was just making photos and selfies. And this is also something that is a little bit criticized because we don't know much about him.

NELSON: What is known is that Kurz's center-right Austrian People's Party, which he has led since May, has a strong lead in the opinion polls. The popular foreign minister, who is said to be a keen windsurfer and hiker, has worked hard to rebrand the party as an agent for change, even though it's been part of the Austrian government for the past three decades. What hasn't changed is Kurz's hard line on refugees and uncontrolled immigration. In 2015, he vehemently opposed opening European Union borders to more than a million mostly Muslim asylum seekers and migrants who streamed into Austria in points west and north across the Balkans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAUER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: During campaign speeches, he links such uncontrolled migration to insecurity in Austria. Kurz also supports curbing benefits for new arrivals and making them learn German and adapt to local customs.

Gernot Bluemel heads the Vienna office of the People's Party.

GERNOT BLUEMEL: He introduced integration by effort so that everybody's welcome here in Austria who is willing to make a contribution, to work for himself, to pay taxes, to play by the rules. And that was a way that was not so common in Austria then, but he made it popular.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KURZ: (Speaking German).

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: During a recent campaign stop, Korz told the crowd, please give us your vote so we have the power to make real change. Bauer says voters here want change even though the Austrian economy is booming. Jobs are up, and unemployment is down.

BAUER: Austria is a rich country. We don't have so many big problems. But still, there's a desire for change. And Sebastian Kurz - he symbolizes this desire for change because he's fresh though he is the longest serving minister in the Austria government right now.

NELSON: That irony is not lost on the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party of Austria. The euroskeptic party, which is currently the largest opposition voice in Austria, accuses Kurz of co-opting their anti-refugee message. Even so, Kurz could ask the Freedom Party to join him in governing if, as expected, his political party comes in first but fails to get a majority of the votes. There was widespread international criticism and even sanctions the last time the two groups formed a government here in 2000 because of objections to the Freedom Party whose first leader was a former Nazi. That kind of backlash is not expected this time as the Freedom Party has toned down its approach. Bluemel adds the People's Party will keep any coalition partner in check. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Vienna.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL SONG, "WILD WERE THE WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.