BERLIN — Sebastian Kurz was faster than Emmanuel Macron. Following the rapid rise of this year's other young political superstar, Kurz's victory Sunday in Austria's parliamentary election was even more stunning — and swift. He needed only five months to pull off three unbelievable feats: to rebuild the washed-out Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) into a one-man political machine, to break the spell on a seemingly unstoppable far-right, and to become the most powerful man in Austria. His French counterpart needed six months to do the same.
At 31, Europe's youngest foreign minister is now set to become Austria's new Chancellor — and Europe's youngest head of government ever.
Unlike Macron, Kurz did not found a new political movement. He instead built his new party from within the old. Before him, the Austrian People's Party's share of the electorate had sunk to 20% — behind the Social Democrats and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO). But once Austria's most popular politician took over the party's leadership this past spring, the ÖVP immediately shot up in the polls, rising above 30%.
It bested the far-right rivals, which had appeared to be en route to capturing the chancellorship ever since the migrant crisis began two years ago. That too was reminiscent of this past spring's win by Macron, who fended off far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
ÖVP meeting in Vienna on Sept. 23 — Photo: Alex Halada/APA Picturedesk/ZUMA
The same year that the ÖVP came to power in 1986, after two decades of being the opposition, Sebastian Kurz was born into Vienna's working-class district of Meidling, where he still lives today. At 19, he began studying law but never finished. At 23, he became the chairman of the ÖVP's youth branch, where he first made a name for himself by traveling the country during an election campaign in a black Hummer, his so-called "Geil-o-mobil," accompanied by scantily-clad women. [In German, geil is a slang term for "cool," though it literally means "horny."]
But since then, he has largely played it straight — and accelerated, soon becoming the state secretary for integration, focusing on the issues of Islam, majority culture, and identity, before getting the foreign minister's job at the age of 27. Kurz has strategically positioned himself left of the far-right, offering an alternative to populist nationalism but also a strict stance on unfettered immigration and political Islam. Like Macron, Kurz's positions place the political left and right against him. In particular, he has angered the far-right by stealing their thunder on issues like migration and security.
This leaves Sebastian Kurz to be the Macron of the East.
Kurz has aggressively taken up these subjects and staked out a unique position in Europe's current debate, balancing hardline conservative views with a firm commitment to the EU. Like Macron, Kurz could offer an opportunity for all of Europe. With the support of the French and the Austrians, Germany is in a stronger negotiating position in the EU. Macron could reform the eurozone and shrink the gap in southern Europe by providing a stable foundation for the euro — without radical austerity and transferring debts to other countries.
This leaves Sebastian Kurz to be the Macron of the East, and the Macron of migration. He could help integrate those eastern European countries that have historically been close to Austria and that more recently have been bogged down by the refugee crisis. Now that these dashing newcomers have each won their first term, it's time for them to start working with Angela Merkel, who just won her fourth.
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