Austrian Gambler The Meteoric Rise of Sebastian Kurz

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz could become his country's next chancellor on Sunday. The politician is conservative and vain, but also adroit. What would the 31-year-old's election mean for the country?

Iris Kivisalu / DER SPIEGEL

By


The passengers on Austrian Airlines Flight OS 87 from Vienna to New York are a diverse group: Between whining babies and Orthodox Jews with their sidelocks, a man takes his miniature pinscher for a walk down the aisle.

Right in the middle of the bustle, in window seat 25A, is Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, flying economy by his own choice, even though he is on his way to the United Nations General Assembly. Without complaint, he has folded his six-foot frame into the cramped rear section of the Boeing 767. He cuts into his chicken with plastic cutlery before taking a nap. Then, over the southern tip of Greenland, he opens up a bit about his mood: Things are going quite well for him at the moment, he says.

On Oct. 15, Austrians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament and Kurz has a very good chance of becoming the country's next leader. "In the meantime, we have 150,000 supporters -- and most of them have never been to an election event before," he says. "And now you can see 4,000 of them who are coming and thinking, 'See, be seen, be there.'"

Kurz only became his party's chairman in July, but the foreign minister has already pulled off the feat of catapulting his center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) from third place into the lead in the polls. The party is ahead of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), led by current Chancellor Christian Kern, by as much as 10 percentage points. It also leads Heinz-Christian Strache's right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which had long been on top.

A Chess Player

Spending time with the 31-year-old Kurz -- whether in Vienna, at a European Union summit in Tallinn, or on the main stage in New York, between Donald Trump and Henry Kissinger -- reveals a political professional who hides his hunger for power behind meticulous manners and his tough core beneath his soft features. Kurz thinks several steps ahead, like a chess player, including the resonance he hopes to get in the media.

In New York, he casually strolls into UN headquarters with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and later opens his speech with the words: "Ladies and gentleman, the world has never felt more insecure, at least not in my lifetime." Kurz never stumbles over his words and speaks of jihadism and the Korea crisis as if tiny Austria has long since become a leading voice at the table of major players.

Even as he listened to Donald Trump's unhinged threats against North Kora and Iran, Kurz had already planned his own coup: that of promoting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that had largely been pushed by Austria and has so far been signed by 53 countries around the world. And what of the fact that NATO criticized the initiative as unwelcome, as an attempt to divide the international community? It doesn't bother him much. "I have absolutely no understanding" for that position, Kurz says coolly.

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Kurz made his first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly at the tender age of 28 in 2014, but he was still savvy enough to avoid being assigned to a group of speakers including representatives from countries like Kiribati and Andorra, who tend to speak to an almost empty plenary hall. Instead, he gave a spirited prime-time speech warning of the dangers of radical Islam. The news agency Reuters would later write that the Austrian's appearance was of a kind "rarely seen during the annual meeting of world leaders."

Now, three years later, he finds himself back in New York to make another big splash. Even as, back home in Vienna, politicians are engaged in a parochial debate over whether to build an anti-terrorism wall around the Chancellery, Kurz is presenting himself as a man of the world. He argues with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, meets with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and arranges to be introduced to 94-year-old former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The photographer is given 30 seconds to immortalize the meeting - and just a short time later, the image of Kurz with Kissinger can already be found online.

With his broad, boyish smile, tightly tailored suits and carefully gelled-back hair, Kurz always seems to be in a good mood, as though he has just jumped out of the shower. He pays close attention to whomever he is speaking to, leans forward, listens and gives people the feeling they are important. "Can I bring you some water," Kurz asks, almost before you've had a chance to sit down. "Are you doing well?"

The candidate poses as a man of the people and hones his reputation for fearlessness. "I say what I think," he says. He still lives together with his girlfriend in Vienna's Meidling neighborhood, where he was born and raised -- an area that has an abundance of tanning salons and Turkish fast-food shops. Only now, in the campaign, has he made an issue of his roots: that his mother, a teacher, also takes care of his grandmother in the state of Lower Austria; that his father, an engineer, was unemployed for a time; or that his Bosnian neighbor exploded with rage when his daughter was harassed by an Afghan refugee. During the beginning of the 1990s, Kurz's own parents had taken in Bosnian refugees.

A Meteoric Rise

Foreign minister at 27 and chancellor at only 31? The ÖVP candidate's career has been meteoric. It's difficult not to notice that this candidate for his country's highest government office is still learning the ropes. "That's absurd," Kurz is fond of saying when he hears something for the first time. Or: "No way!" But he learns quickly. In private conversations, he very often listens more than he talks, absorbing knowledge like a sponge.

"I definitely never wanted to become a career politician," Kurz claims, as if his career just somehow happened on its own. Given his strategic abilities and iron will, it seems fair to doubt that claim.

Kurz's effort to move into the Chancellery has long been planned by him and his staff, as Vienna's Falter magazine recently reported, citing confidential ÖVP party documents that read like the script of a political takeover. From the first talking points ("wordings") to "interviews with journos" right up to the radical restructuring of the party and names of possible donors, the battle plan for the Kurz team is laid out in meticulous detail.

When he learned of the story's publication, the foreign minister was in Wolfgang's Steakhouse in New York waiting for his filet mignon. He made calls to Vienna and expressed doubts about the veracity of the documents, complaining that he was the victim of a campaign. Ultimately, Kurz says it was no crime to have mentally prepared himself to take over leadership of the party. But an overthrow of party head Reinhold Mitterlehner or a deliberate push for new elections? No way.

The foreign minister made his candidacy for party chairman contingent on seven conditions -- above all, he demanded a free hand on all issues of importance. Ultimately, the powerful state leaders, rural bigwigs and business functionaries within the ÖVP genuflected before the young political star and agreed to be partly stripped of their power. Since then, the conservative party, whose color is traditionally black, has been using turquoise. The party has also rechristened itself the Sebastian Kurz List -- the New People's Party.

A Boxer in the Final Round

"The idea that a person whose party has been in government for 30 years could write 'Time for something new' on an election poster is bizarre," says political consultant Thomas Hofer. "But in contrast to Chancellor Kern, Kurz has a strategy and, through the people he planted in the party, also a base in the ÖVP. If he doesn't make any serious mistakes, then he is certain to come in first place."

And indeed, Kurz is now moving through the political ring like a boxer in the final round whose point lead is unassailable. He seems more like someone who is defending his title than a challenger. "His tactics remind me of Angela Merkel," says Hofer. "First you let everything bounce off you and then, in the end, you make a minor concession to your critics."

One of those critics is Chancellor Kern. He describes Kurz as the last straw that the ÖVP can grasp at, saying his election platform sounds a bit like "free beer for everyone" and describing his calls to close the refugee routes across the Mediterranean as "nonsense."

Kern doesn't hold back with his criticism -- likely because he himself has been so battered in the campaign. The incumbent has also been damaged by the scandal surrounding his erstwhile adviser, Tal Silberstein, who was arrested on suspicions of money laundering. Under Silberstein's direction, the SPÖ appears to have created defamatory Facebook profiles of Kurz.

At first glance, the chancellor and the foreign minister aren't all that different. Both are eloquent speakers, good looking and vain. They are figureheads for parties that have become bereft of political ideas in what is largely a personality-based campaign.

On the campaign trail, Kurz has been filling arenas and town squares across Austria in ways not seen since deceased populist politician Jörg Haider at his peak. Young and old, men and women -- thousands have been flocking to his campaign events like disciples awaiting their savior. Kurz's supporters view him as their yearned-for dragon slayer, a man who is making pledges that used to only come from the right-wing populists: to stop immigrants from accessing the country's social system and reducing the benefits available to asylum-seekers in Austria. Opponents have criticized the conservative candidate as "Prince Iron-Heart" because he demanded earlier and more loudly than others that Austria put limits on immigration.

Early Missteps

It's indisputable that Kurz's career would have had a different trajectory were it not for the refugees. He was appointed state secretary for integration at the age of 24, despite having been best known before that for driving around the city in an SUV surrounded by scantily clad women in an attempt to attract young voters. At the time, Austrian newspaper Der Standard described Kurz's appointment as a "farce." Some people would even spit on the ground in front of him when they saw the young politician approaching. His mother cried at home.

It's a time that Kurz isn't fond of discussing. But he still feels that the work he did at the time, the phrases he came up with -- "encourage and expect" or "integration is a give and take" -- remain valid today. Both on migration and in general. Among his most successful campaign slogans is: "Those who work and benefit society can't be the losers."

'Has Merkel Thanked You Yet?'

Kurz "discovered the refugee crisis" as his signature issue in August 2015, write the authors of "Flucht: Wie der Staat die Kontrolle verlor" (Flight: How the State Lost Control). Responding to the influx of refugees coming in through the Balkans at the time, the foreign minister wrote heated letters to his EU counterparts. And rather than welcoming refugees at the Vienna train station as some fellow government ministers did, he instead criticized what he called the dishonest way in which the refugees were then "waved on to Germany" that year.

Kurz says today that his policies at the time "were not only strategically, but also morally correct." The reference is primarily to the discrete steps he took in early 2016 to close the Balkan route, used by most refugees at the time. Kurz also used contacts in Germany -- to Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, to Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and to Bavarian conservatives, in order to secure backing for his actions. At around midnight on March 9, 2016, the route from Turkey via the Balkans to Austria and Germany was, in fact, sealed -- against the will of Angela Merkel.

Kurz had gambled. And he had won.

"Has Merkel thanked you yet?" the Austrian foreign minister would later be asked in passing by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

And? Did she express her gratitude? Kurz dismisses the question with a smile. Of course not.

Recently, Austria's foreign minister took a gamble once again, and once again creating an awkward situation for the German government, when he called this summer for the suspension of EU accession talks with Turkey. At the time, Merkel and the heads of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were still against cutting off talks, but they changed their tune a short time later. "Of course, it makes me smile," Kurz says over a ginger ale and potato chips in Tallinn, "when the German foreign minister only a few months ago accused me of being a populist, and now the German position on the Turkey issue is identical to ours." But Kurz also knows that politicians who succeed in irritating the Germans will have the Austrian tabloid papers on their side.

When it comes to coverage of himself, the foreign minister is known to be a control freak. The calls made to newsrooms by Kurz's staff to protest the way he is portrayed are notorious. If necessary, Kurz will sometimes even intervene himself. His staff is known for using canned answers to written interview questions from small newspapers in order to avoid any slips. Kurz also keeps an eye on what gets written about him on Facebook and Twitter. On the approach to New York, he had already turned his mobile phone back on when the plane was still a thousand meters up.

Kurz can be unforgiving and he doesn't forget his adversaries. When a leading journalist accuses him of "civilized Orbanism," in reference to Hungary's controversial prime minister, or "Strach-ism," in reference to Austrian right-wing populist leader Heinz-Christian Strache, he simply counters: "He's still foaming at the mouth because I once made a fool out of him at a public event." And when a former ÖVP party head sneered that Kurz, if he lost the election, could always go back and finish the college degree he never completed, the foreign minister leaked that the politician was just miffed that Kurz had stripped him of his cush gig.

'Well-Defined Niches'

And what would a Chancellor Kurz stand for? "For freedom, for individual responsibility and solidarity," the candidate says. In other words: less government, more business in addition to tax cuts of up to 14 billion euros. In terms of foreign policy, he says, Austria should find "well-defined niches" between the major powers. But these empty phrases do little to hide the fact that it is Kurz himself who is largely the ÖVP's political platform for the election.

Those he has placed on his party's national list are largely independents and people who it is hard to object to: individuals like a paraplegic former pole vaulter, a former member of the Green Party with Turkish roots, the organizer of the Vienna Opera Ball, a member of the Vienna Jewish community organization and the former president of the Court of Auditors. The icing on the cake is former Formula 1 racing star Niki Lauda, who is a member of Kurz's support committee.

Would he form a governing coalition with the right-wing populist FPÖ, as some have suggested? Kurz refused to give a concrete answer. To him, he says, the idea of right and left are "pigeonholes from past centuries," but adds that he could also imagine leading a minority government. That would be a novelty in a country that has a tradition of so-called grand coalitions pairing the conservative ÖVP and the center-left SPÖ. The SPÖ under Christian Kern, though, says it will not be available as a junior coalition partner for the next government if Kurz wins.

"Sebastian Kurz is going all in," as one person close to the politician puts it. "He knows that he has to win -- otherwise he'll be out and the party will say, 'You had your chance.'"

But Kurz appears to enjoy gambling. "Let's bet a case of wine," he says abruptly at night in the bar of a Tallinn hotel. "On what?" "On the election result." Then the foreign minister places his bet -- on a result that would leave all of his options open: governing with one of the two major parties, the SPÖ or the FPÖ, but also without either if need be.

That is what he is hoping for.

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