The rise and fall of 35-year-old Sebastian Kurz was breathtaking in any context. Yet the resignation of the Austrian chancellor offers unique insights into a political scenario that was very much of our COVID times.
VIENNA — Sebastian Kurz is used to being popular. When he was re-elected as Federal Chairman of his party's youth organization in 2012, he received 100% of the votes. And that was exactly the bar against which he, along with all those who basked in his glow, have measured success in the decade since.
Kurz won 99.4% of the votes at the conservative ÖVP party congress this past August. Such a phenomenon might be common in authoritarian regimes, but is rare in a European democracy.
The explanation is simple: With the now 35-year-old, a party of graying ladies and gentlemen, which had grown accustomed to electoral defeats, suddenly had a rising young candidate with whom elections could be won again. And that, above all, brought job security for much of the center-right political class.
Kurz the showman
Kurz was also something of a showman: we saw it with his early campaign slogan "Schwarz macht geil" (Black is cool) in the 2010 Vienna election campaign, and drove around the capital with the "Geilomobil", a campaign humvee. His pose in the off-road vehicle was ridiculed by many, but it few could forget.
Even then, the show made it clear what it was all about: catchy sayings, attention-grabbling positions — and that's exactly what Sebastian Kurz, the now suddenly fallen former Chancellor, had been built on from the beginning.
It is not completely absurd to assume that a small circle within the ÖVP has built him up as chancellor from the beginning. But there were also conflicts: about the timing of his party takeover, the way he exercised power, how he used his ÖVP leadership.
The chancellor's breathtaking rise
Nevertheless, the goal of Kurz's action was clear from the beginning. He was the young star of the party — today he remains its boss. And the one against whom, even today, people avoid challenging his positions, at least publicly, as he was a guarantor of the party's mandates. In other words: Sebastian Kurz, as always, is simply not used to being rejected.
Not a word of remorse.
His resignation on Saturday evening is a perfect example of this world: Kurz offered not a single word of remorse, showed no awareness of mistakes or sense of guilt. He merely apologized for individual statements made in the heat of the moment, which he would not make again today.
Kurz conceded that he, too, is only human. And yet he lacked any sign of self-criticism, a critical analysis of his own actions and insight. Because these are things he never had to learn.
His rise was breathtaking, and other conservative parties in Europe looked with envy of the political success in Austria. Only a few days ago, before the government crisis broke out in Austria, Tilman Kuban, head of the Young Union of the German CDU, claimed: "You can see in Austria that Sebastian Kurz, even as a young conservative politician, manages to rank first among the younger people."
Sebastian Kurz, then Austrian Foreign Minister, speaking in Berlin in 2014.
On the European stage, many appreciated and feared him for his straight talk on migration and debt policy. And the "eco-social tax reform" just passed under his leadership was also admired at home and abroad, as it had been negotiated so silently and respectfully within the conservative-green government alliance.
Now, the continuation of the coalition is at least guaranteed without Kurz, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) is taking over the office of Chancellor.
The accusations against Kurz fit into the picture of a man who is accustomed to the applause of an audience: As early as April 2016, he and his confidants are said to have systematically manipulated media coverage. Kurz was still Foreign Minister at the time: a position that is also considered a springboard in other countries: it offers publicity and ideal photo opportunities — without all the dangers that the lowlands of domestic politics pose. Austria's chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2017 provided an additional stage.
The party had committed itself entirely to Kurz.
Kurz and his team are accused of commissioning opinion polls in favor of the young leader, and of having billed them — disguised as studies relevant to the ministry via the Ministry of Finance, which was also led by the ÖVP at the time. The embellished survey results were leaked to the media and also used in the party's internal power struggle for the chairmanship. Witnesses remember how Kurz began to create a mood against party leader Reinhold Mitterlehner in 2016 with such polls.
This was followed by the takeover of the party, the transcoding into a movement and the change of the party color from black to turquoise. The ÖVP had committed itself entirely to Kurz, who was subsequently endowed with far-reaching powers. Mitterlehner later even spoke of a coup.
The secured chat messages from the phone of a Kurz confidant reveal above all how naturally his team has acted, completely apart from criminally relevant facts. It is the choice of words, an excess of self-confidence with which the persons involved acted that is surprising. Not a hint of moral doubt can be seen. If there were objections, it was only in connection with how to conceal their actions. Awareness of injustice? No such thing.
Kurz has never even learned to communicate negative news, mistakes or crises. This has been shown, for example, in the pandemic: Austria's vaccination rate is lower than the German one, the death rates are higher — and the meandering strategy against the virus was met with strong criticism. Still, the professional press people could do nothing about Kurz's leadership approach.
Kurz's ability to deal with criticism is notable. His attacks on the criminal investigators recently seemed almost manic. His defensiveness may serve an end in itself, but seems simply out of place in view of the overwhelming evidence. From this point of view, Kurz is also a victim of the political consequences of the pandemic. It is this reality that appears bound to shatter him.