Austria poised to shift right as 31-year-old Kurz seeks leadership


Katica Gigovic excitedly grabbed the arm of Sebastian Kurz as the 31-year-old Austrian foreign minister visited her factory during his election campaign.

"You are my favourite. You are so ambitional," the worker said, garbling the words ambitious and sensational to describe the conservative frontrunner for Sunday's parliamentary vote.

Gigovic works for Evva, a Vienna-based company that makes locks and access control systems – a fitting visit for Kurz, whose popularity is closely linked to his tough stance on migration and border security.

Since Kurz took over the leadership of the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) in May, he has been working hard to transform it into a popular movement, like the one that carried Emmanuel Macron to presidential election victory in France.

Backed by celebrities from the worlds of sports, science and industry, Kurz promises to cut taxes and slim down Austria's bureaucracy.

However, one issue sets Kurz apart from Macron as well as from Austria's Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern: illegal immigration and what he sees as the threat of political Islam.

In speech after speech and interview after interview, the conservative chief diplomat has called for stopping migration across the Mediterranean, closing day care centres that are run by Muslim groups, policing mosques and lowering social benefits for children who live abroad while their parents work in Austria.  

When a 12-year-old boy recently asked Kurz about the future of the pension system, as part of an interview series with children by the tabloid Kronen Zeitung, the minister said it was important that enough people keep paying into the system. Then he added: "And we have to stop immigration that burdens our social system – otherwise we won't be able to finance it."

For the past 10 years, Kurz' OeVP has played junior partner to the Social Democratic Party (SPOe) in increasingly fraught coalitions.

The SPOe, led by Chancellor Christian Kern, has been trailing the OeVP in polls for months and might even fall behind the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) on Sunday.

Kern, a 51-year-old former business manager, has built his campaign around Austria's recent economic upturn and around his job-creation plans, rather than immigrants.

Migration has been a hot-button issue ever since 2015, when the government seemed helpless as 90,000 asylum seekers crossed the border.

While Kern is not far apart from Kurz when it comes to supporting strict curbs on migration, he has refrained from highlighting his policies.

"The migration issue is very sensitive and has the potential to divide society," he warned in a television debate, a few days ahead of the election.

However, another reason why the Social Democrats have not been very vocal on these topics is that the party is deeply divided on them.

While Kern and many others take a liberal approach, others would like the chancellor to get tough on migration. "Kern has to bridge a wide spectrum within his party," political analyst Kathrin Stainer-Haemmerle told journalists. The chancellor's campaign has also been beset by a major scandal of his own making. Two weeks before the vote, media revelations forced the SPOe to admit that a team of Israeli spin doctors that Kern had hired had covertly created fake websites to launch smear campaigns against political opponents.

Kern's weakness has created an opening for the far-right FPOe, which is keen on joining the next government as a coalition partner. FPOe leader Strache, who had contacts with neo-Nazis in his youth, has been moving the party towards the centre and towards a government role, by moderating his language on migration.

In addition, Strache has toned down his anti-EU rhetoric. He no longer talks about Austria's potential exit from the European Union, but rather about creating a less centralised union.

"The FPOe has been increasingly muted in recent weeks," Stainer-Haemmerle said.

And what about the Greens? The environmentalist party still looked strong last December, when Austrian voters elected former Greens chief Alexander Van der Bellen as their president, spelling defeat for far-right candidate Norbert Hofer.

Since then, the Greens have been reeling with internal power struggles that led to the split with their youth movement and the departure of one of their most prominent parliamentarians, who went on to form his own party.

Anticipating a potential shift to the right at the parliamentary election, Van der Bellen said last month that any new government would need to make sure that Austria remains a country "of mutual respect and constitutional fundamental rights."    (dpa)

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