Austria and Sebastian Kurz: Back to the Future?

Austria becoming Europe’s political focus is not a regular occurrence. Yet when the egregious “Ibiza Scandal” transpired on 17th May, its impact went far beyond Austrian soil.

The scandal forced then chancellor Sebastian Kurz to end the coalition with the FPÖ, causing the government to collapse on 18th May, followed by an announcement that early elections would be held. Voters and observers who thought Kurz could steady the ship and maintain chancellor in a minority government were corrected when a subsequent motion of no confidence was triggered in parliament, with the result of Kurz losing his office – only nine days after the government had collapsed.

In the fallout, Austria’s president Van der Bellen was tasked to install an interim government – caretakers who would keep the government running until the elections are being held. Since then, Austria has been governed by its first female chancellor, Brigitte Bierlein, the former president of Austria’s constitutional court. The choice of Bierlein and her stellar legal background was not a coincidence but a statement. A statement that the rule of law, which the Ibiza affair had shaken to its core, is alive and well.

And as anticipated, Bierlein has been conducting the office and herself with the necessary decorum, and in a rather managerial role rather than in an executive one. Thus, comments on her persona have been mostly favourable in Austria, as well as on the European stage. It was Austria’s prerogative to repair the damage the Ibiza scandal had caused, and so far, the interim government has fulfilled its duties impeccably well.

With the elections being held on September 29th, however, the parties have positioned themselves for their respective campaigns, and the temporary peace in Austria’s politics is about to change again. Anything but the re-election of Kurz will be a major surprise, as the ÖVP is running away from its competitors at 39% in latest polls.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the aforementioned FPÖ follow at 20% and 21% respectively. The ÖVP’s popularity continues to correlate with one factor in particular: Sebastian Kurz. He remains the party’s face and also Austria’s most popular politician. If Austrians could vote its chancellor directly, Kurz would receive 37% – “shredder affair” and an ongoing malevolent slander campaign against his persona notwithstanding. To put this in perspective, SPÖ chair and top candidate Rendi-Wagner would receive 11%, while FPÖ chair Hofer is at 14%.

The Austrian election is, therefore, not a matter of who, but rather how. And while Sebastian Kurz has already declared that he would talk to all parties to form a new government, his preference remains a coalition with his former partner FPÖ. This preference is attached to a condition, however. The condition being that former Minister of the Interior, Herbert Kickl, will not be part of the new government in any capacity, particularly not as Minister of the Interior. Kurz has openly uttered his disappointment on how Kickl managed the Ibiza scandal. Moreover, alleged links to a repugnant right-wing extremist group in Kickl’s circle have not helped the cause either. FPÖ chair Hofer, who continues to emphasize the high degree of synergy ÖVP and FPÖ had in their previous coalition, responded immediately, by calling out Kurz’s remarks as campaign rhetoric. “After the election, everything always looks different”, he nonchalantly said, confirming a long-standing political cliché: Nothing is as obsolete as yesterday’s statements, or in this case, statements made before the election. Meanwhile, the man of the hour himself, Herbert Kickl, has recently said that his party would make the Ministry of Interior a condition to enter in any coalition negotiations, and furthermore expressed his desire to move back into his former office.

Kurz’s other option is a grand coalition with the SPÖ. The Social Democrats and its chair Pamela Rendi-Wagner have not ruled out this idea and neither has the ÖVP. For this scenario to materialize, however, a few obstacles would need to be overcome. First and foremost, the respective political ideas are diametrically opposing each other drastically, particularly in terms of immigration and the middle class. It appears to be a gap that wishful thinking cannot bridge. Another, more subtle component, is the personal relationship between the two party leaders. While Rendi-Wagner has openly declared the relationship was “intact”, it is likely that some animosity from Kurz’s side remains, after it took the SPÖ’s votes to win the motion of no confidence against him – which essentially ended his chancellorship.

Another scenario is a minority government led by the ÖVP alone. Kurz had already expressed his proclivity for the idea and how he could facilitate it. In reality, however, a minority government is simply inconceivable. Especially if Kurz intends to continue his version of politics. The opposition in parliament would simply block most, if not all, of his bills, except for environmental and justice issues, where Greens and SPÖ cannot be ruled out for temporary cooperation. Besides that, however, it is an option that carries the next motion of no confidence in its pocket, thereby making Kurz one of Europe’s weakest leaders.

While Austria briefly returns to political prominence during the upcoming election, the result itself will not surprise anyone. Unless a Watergate-esque scandal emerges, the ÖVP will win comfortably and utilize its best bet: a coalition with its former partner FPÖ. Kurz’s current campaign rhetoric and reluctance to accept certain personnel will succumb under the opportunity to become the chancellor again – with Austria being on its way back to the future.