Austria's Kurz Seeks Early Vote as Kern's Coalition Teeters

  • Thirty-year old foreign minister demands full power in party
  • ‘Grand coalition’ to end as Kern ponders minority government

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern’s government came to the brink of collapse on Friday after the main contender to lead his conservative coalition partner said he’d seek snap elections to break the country’s political deadlock.

Sebastian Kurz, the 30-year-old foreign minister who won the backing of the People’s Party’s powerful provincial leaders on Thursday, said asking the Austrian people is the only way to produce a new government with a mandate for change. He urged his party to give him full power on policy and personnel in a leadership meeting due Sunday.

“The decision on which direction the country should be headed should be made by the voters,” Kurz told journalists in Vienna on Friday. “I believe early elections are the right way to make change possible in Austria.”

Sebastian Kurz

Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

Kurz’s bid to follow Reinhold Mitterlehner, who resigned as vice chancellor and leader of the conservative group this week may put Austria on track for elections this fall, a year after a divisive presidential campaign last year in which Alexander Van der Bellen beat Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the nationalist Freedom Party.

Chancellor Kern, who’s held talks with opposition leaders in the days since Mitterlehner stepped down, said on Friday he rejects early elections and will seek the support of other parties in parliament to continue governing, according to an interview with daily newspaper Die Presse.

As the Freedom Party, the biggest opposition group, has already said it also wants to vote early, Kern would need all other groups to back him.

Kurz’s move would end an uneasy “grand coalition” between Kurz’s conservatives and Kern’s Social Democrats, a constellation that has governed Austria since 2007, and most of the time since World War II. Increasingly acrimonious bickering in the last few years has cost both mainstream parties voter support and has eroded the enthusiasm of their bases.

The last near-collapse was averted this January, when Kern threatened to end the government before forging a renewed policy agenda with Mitterlehner. That pact was under constant attack from the conservative right wing, led by Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka. While Kurz stayed out of this debate, Kern’s allies accused him of orchestrating the attacks from behind the scenes. Mitterlehner said in his resignation speech that some in his party were “in government and in opposition at the same time,” without naming Kurz or his allies.

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“There’s the offer to me to continue the government, to just exchange some heads again and act as if nothing happened,” Kurz said. “But just a few days or weeks later, we’d be back where we started again.”

Kurz joined the People’s Party’s youth organization when he was still in school, and assumed his first elected post in Vienna’s city council in 2010. A year later, then-Chairman Michael Spindelegger spotted the political talent and gave him a junior minister post in the federal government, responsible for immigrant integration policy.

Political Prodigy

In 2013, aged 27, Kurz became foreign minister, the post he’s held ever since. He was the key driver of Austria’s about-turn in the Syrian refugee crisis when he helped orchestrate the closing of the “Balkan route,” the main avenue for Syrian war refugees to come to central Europe in 2015 and 2016. Kurz also was behind an Austrian law that bans full Islamic veils for women such as the Niqab or the Burqa.

Kurz’s foes like to ridicule him for his young age and for political campaigns he led in his early years, including a notorious photo shoot with models on a black Hummer SUV. That hasn’t damaged his popularity among voters. More Austrians would want him as chancellor than incumbent Kern, according to a Gallup poll.

Opinion polls currently see the Freedom Party with around 30 percent support, just ahead of Kern’s Social Democrats. The People’s Party has slipped in polls to about 20 percent, but some polls suggest it could surge under Kurz’s leadership.

The Green Party would win just over 10 percent, with the liberal Neos Party at 5 percent to 7 percent. No polls have been published since Mitterlehner’s resignation.

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