Austrian poised to become Europe’s 1st millennial leader
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Austrian poised to become Europe’s 1st millennial leader

Howard Kurz, 31, declares victory in national elections; Jewish group voices concern as far-right surges

Austria's Foreign Minister and leader of Austria's center-right People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz waves to supporters during the party's election event following the general elections in Vienna, Austria, on October 15, 2017.  (AFP/ APA / ROBERT JAEGER)
Austria's Foreign Minister and leader of Austria's center-right People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz waves to supporters during the party's election event following the general elections in Vienna, Austria, on October 15, 2017. (AFP/ APA / ROBERT JAEGER)

VIENNA — At age 31, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz is poised to become the first millennial to lead a European country, potentially in coalition with the far-right after its best result in almost 20 years.

While no party won a majority in a national election Sunday, the telegenic Kurz is most likely to be sworn in as Austria’s next chancellor — and Europe’s youngest leader — after the tough coalition government negotiations that lie ahead.

Near-final results from Sunday’s balloting put his People’s Party comfortably in first place, with 31.4 percent of the vote. The right-wing Freedom Party came in second with 27.4 percent. The center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria, which now governs in coalition with People’s Party, got 26.7 percent.

“I promise I will fight for great change in this country. It’s time to establish a new political style and a new culture in this country,” Kurz said Sunday.

Austria’s Foreign Minister and leader of Austria’s centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz speaks to supporters during the party’s election event following the general elections in Vienna, Austria, on October 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / APA / HERBERT NEUBAUER)

Kurz, nicknamed “wunderwuzzi,” is expected to form a coalition with the anti-immigration FPOe of Heinz-Christian Strache, 48.

The last time the FPOe entered government, in 2000 under Haider, who praised Hitler’s “orderly” employment policies, Austria was ostracized in Europe.

But there would not be the same backlash now, owing to the “normalization of the far-right in Europe since then,” said expert Pepijn Bergsen at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Like the Alternative for Germany, which last month became the third-largest party in the Bundestag, and France’s National Front, the FPOe has stoked concerns about a record influx of migrants into Europe.

The party was founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s — Strache flirted with neo-Nazism in his youth — and is highly critical of the European Union. It wants EU sanctions on Russia lifted.

The projections of the elections sparked immediate concern from Jewish groups over the anticipated return of “xenophobes and racists” to the Austrian government.

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) said it was seriously concerned about the strong showing of the far-right Freedom Party and its head, Strache.

“It is sad and distressing that such a platform should receive more than a quarter of the vote and become the country’s second party,” said WJC President Ronald Lauder, who served as US ambassador to Austria from 1986 to 1987.

“It is still full of xenophobes and racists and is, mildly put, very ambiguous toward Austria’s Nazi past. My only hope is that they won’t end up in government,” he said.

Chairman of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache (C) kisses his wife Philippa Beck, next to FPOe vice-chairman Norbert Hofer (R), as he celebrates after the results of the general elections in Vienna on October 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / APA / HANS PUNZ)

The FPOe’s return to power in the wealthy EU member would be a fresh headache for Brussels as it struggles with Brexit and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

In December, the FPOe almost won the presidency and topped opinion polls in the midst of Europe’s migrant crisis.

But since taking over the OeVP in May and re-branding it as his personal “movement,” Kurz has stolen some of Strache’s thunder by talking tough on immigration and criticizing the European Union as well.

Both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party have called for securing Austria’s borders and quickly deporting asylum-seekers whose requests are denied.

For his turquoise movement, Kurz drew young candidates from outside politics and vowed to put “Austrians first” again.

As foreign minister, Kurz claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016, earning him praise at home.

Pushing far-right themes, he wants to cut benefits for all foreigners, slash Austria’s red tape and keep the EU out of national affairs — in common with Strache.

Experts say a right-wing government could turn Austria into a tricky partner for the bloc.

Vienna will hold the EU’s presidency in the second half of 2018, just when Brussels wants to conclude Brexit talks.

Kurz’s beginnings

Becoming head of government would be the next leap in a political career that started eight years ago when Kurz, then studying law, was elected chairman of his party’s youth branch.

Smart and articulate, he eventually caught the eye of People’s Party elders. He was appointed state secretary for integration, overseeing government efforts to make immigrants into Austrians, in 2011.

After a Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition was formed four years ago, Kurz, then 27, became Austria’s foreign minister — the youngest top diplomat in Europe.

He hosted several rounds of talks between Iran and six other countries on Tehran’s nuclear program, meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry and other powerbrokers. Other international events further boosted his visibility and party influence.

When a new wave of migrants and refugees seeking to relocate to Europe became a continent-wide concern in 2015, Kurz recognized Austrian voters’ anxiety over unchecked immigration involving large numbers of Muslim newcomers.

He called for tougher external border controls, better integration and stringent control of “political Islam” funded from abroad. He also organized the shutdown of the popular overland route through the West Balkans many newcomers were using to reach the EU’s prosperous heartland.

By now, Kurz and his traditionally centrist party had drifted considerably to the right of their Social Democratic government partners, making governing difficult. Kurz’s moment came when both agreed this spring to an early national election.

The People’s Party, then lagging in third place and long seen as a stodgy old boys network, made him leader. Kurz set out to reinvent the party’s image after securing guarantees for unprecedented authority.

The youthful, Vienna-born politician turned out to be the tonic the party needed, helping it shrug off criticism that it’s been part of the political establishment for decades. He mostly goes without a tie, works standing behind a desk and flies economy class. He has a girlfriend, but is private about his life outside politics.

Noting that his center-right party had triumphed over the rival Social Democrats only twice since the end of World War II, Kurz called Sunday’s election a “historic victory.”

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