Jun 12th 2021A SENSE OF déjà vu surrounds Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor. It is certainly not due to his appearance. At 34, he is a decade or three younger than most European leaders. A slicked-back bob stands out against the near-mandatory short back and sides of his peers. Nor does it extend to his personality. Where most politicians enjoy grandstanding, Mr Kurz is renowned as a listener. While leaders can be brusque, Mr Kurz is relentlessly polite, cultivating the image of a well-mannered son-in-law.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.It is Mr Kurz’s approach to politics that is familiar, odd though that may appear at first glance. Although he became Austria’s youngest chancellor in 2017, aged 31, his
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A SENSE OF déjà vu surrounds Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor. It is certainly not due to his appearance. At 34, he is a decade or three younger than most European leaders. A slicked-back bob stands out against the near-mandatory short back and sides of his peers. Nor does it extend to his personality. Where most politicians enjoy grandstanding, Mr Kurz is renowned as a listener. While leaders can be brusque, Mr Kurz is relentlessly polite, cultivating the image of a well-mannered son-in-law.
It is Mr Kurz’s approach to politics that is familiar, odd though that may appear at first glance. Although he became Austria’s youngest chancellor in 2017, aged 31, his career has been decidedly bumpy since then. His first government collapsed in a corruption scandal in which his booze-soaked coalition partner was taken in by someone pretending to be a Russian oligarch’s niece. Once hailed as an admired force within European politics, Mr Kurz became the loudest critic of the EU’s response to covid-19. Back home, a series of sprawling inquiries into the previous government is circling closer to Mr Kurz and his allies. A potential perjury charge now hangs over the Austrian leader, for allegedly lying during one of those inquiries. He has defended himself by lashing out at the judiciary. Mr Kurz’s career is quite a tale. But similar versions of it have been told before.
In his relationship with the EU Mr Kurz best resembles David Cameron, Britain’s former prime minister, who called and lost the Brexit referendum. Among Eurocrats a comparison to Mr Cameron is not a compliment. Like Mr Cameron, Mr Kurz is happy to attack the EU, taking credit for any of its achievements yet shifting blame to Brussels for any problem. When the EU’s vaccination rollout was sluggish, Mr Kurz was among its loudest and most trenchant critics. The Austrian was among the hold-outs determined to limit the EU’s €750bn ($915bn) recovery fund. Though happy to bash the EU, he is not stupid enough to want to leave it. Instead he sees the EU as a resource that can be exploited endlessly without any need for replenishment.
When it comes to domestic politics, Mr Kurz’s approach is one in which the acquisition and retention of power, rather than principles or policies, is his guide. In this he most recalls Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, one of the continent’s longest-serving leaders. Mr Rutte has clung on by doing deals with anyone willing to keep him in office, whether it be a tie-up with soggy liberals, a “grand coalition” with the centre-left, or a peg-on-the-nose deal with Geert Wilders, a far-right populist.
Mr Kurz has shown similar adaptability. His first coalition was with the far-right Freedom Party. When that collapsed, he hopped into bed with the left-wing Green Party. He may think of himself as a liberal Christian Democrat, but the truth is that he is not much of either. Far from being a true liberal, he regularly questions the compatibility of “political Islam” with European values. Nor is there much Christian about his Christian Democracy: his belligerent stance against asylum-seekers has been criticised by the church. Staying in power has been his guiding principle.
Some comparisons are considerably less benign. Critics of Mr Kurz sometimes compare him to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist leader, who has overhauled the state to embed himself in power. When asked which EU country most worried him, Martin Schulz, the former leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, suggested Austria rather than any of the bloc’s usual trouble-makers farther down the Danube.
Those in the Kurz camp bristle at the comparison. Mr Orban has total control of the levers of state power, thanks to a super majority in parliament, which lets him change the constitution at will; Mr Kurz relies on a rickety coalition with the Greens. Austria is an established democracy, albeit quite a cosy one, with rigorous institutions. What Mr Orban and Mr Kurz share, however, is a belief that the system is rigged against them. Mr Kurz has taken to criticising Austrian prosecutors, accusing them of making mistakes in cases against his allies as well as being in hock to his political rivals. Paranoia, whether sincerely or cynically felt, is not a healthy trait in a politician.
As scandals gather around Mr Kurz, comparisons are now made to another prime minister who long managed to maintain power amid swirling allegations of wrongdoing: Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, the Israeli leader. The two have become unlikely buddies. Mr Kurz flew the Israeli flag on government buildings during the recent violence in Israel. When chiding the EU for its slow vaccine rollout, Mr Kurz met Mr Netanyahu to discuss Israel’s speediness. None of the accusations against Mr Kurz matches the buffet of charges against Israel’s prime minister. But Mr Kurz would be happy to copy Mr Netanyahu’s ability to win elections repeatedly amid chaos and recriminations. He is banking on outrage fatigue, with voters taking each revelation a little less seriously than the one before, until any fresh accusation is not worth much at all. Things may look dark for Mr Kurz, but Bibi-esque tenacity—especially as the chancellor’s polling numbers are just about holding up—may save him.
A snail crawling along the edge of a razor
Each of Mr Kurz’s doppelgangers has in the end run into trouble. Mr Cameron is a byword for political disaster. Mr Rutte is stuck in negotiation over the next Dutch government, with no guarantee that he will keep his job at the end of it. Where Mr Orban once ruled supreme over what even he has called an “illiberal democracy”, today he is jittery about his liberal opponents, who seem to have finally managed to gang up. And Mr Netanyahu is at last poised to lose office. Mr Kurz needs a new, more original approach to avoid such fates. Get it right and he has the potential to dom inate Austrian politics for a generation. Get it wrong and a very long retirement beckons. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "The many faces of Sebastian Kurz"