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Austria’s Sebastian Kurz ‘triangulates’ to navigate corruption probe

In four years and two governments — both collapsing in scandal — Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz has managed to create near unanimity against him across the political spectrum.

The 35-year-old leader of Austria’s conservative People’s party announced his resignation on Saturday, after it became clear the country’s entire political opposition and his government partners, the Greens, would go as far as contemplating forming their own coalition just to oust him.

After police raids last week, news emerged Kurz was a suspect in a corruption investigation, facing allegations that he and allies misused taxpayers money and made fake invoices to buy positive media coverage when he was foreign minister between 2013 and 2017. He has denied wrongdoing. No one has been charged with any crime.

Addressing the press on Saturday at Ballhausplatz, the seat of the chancellery, a solemn Kurz said: “My country is more important than I am,” he said, citing the need for political stability.

His resignation may prove more of a pause than an ending, however.

His handpicked replacement as chancellor, foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg, is a close ally. Kurz will remain the leader of the People’s party, which holds 71 of the 183 seats in parliament. Its closest rivals, the Social Democrats, hold 40. As leader of his party’s parliamentary group, Kurz will keep a seat in the cabinet. As a parliamentarian, he enjoys immunity from prosecution.

“He is in a way going to be some kind of shadow chancellor,” said Austrian political commentator Thomas Hofer. “It was a clever piece of political triangulation. He presented it well: ‘We are in a stalemate,’ he was saying, ‘and I am the one who is going to take responsibility and solve things. I am still the one making the decisions.’ was the idea.” 

Another issue for opposition parties is Kurz’s popularity. In a poll last month, 28 per cent cent of respondents said they would directly vote for him as chancellor. His nearest rival, the Social Democrat Pamela Rendi-Wagner, polled 12 per cent and 35 per cent said they did not know who they preferred.

Marcus How, head of analysis at VE Insights, a Vienna-based political consultancy, said the whole affair was like a “car-crash” and “very unpredictable”.

Demonstrators in front of the federal chancellery in Vienna on Saturday after Sebastian Kurz said he planned to step down as head of government © Lisa Leutner/AP

“But for Kurz this puts him back on the front foot,” he said. “He’s playing for time, I imagine with a view of riding out the storm and seeing where things end up. Perhaps if he survives the legal issues, then if the numbers look good enough, he will try to trigger elections.”

“This is a war,” one senior official in the chancellery said.

For now, Kurz’s gambit puts his Green coalition partners in a bind.

On Tuesday, parliament is meeting to debate a motion of no confidence tabled by the Austrian opposition parties. They need only six of the 26 Green MPs to rebel against the party’s leadership to win it.

If the opposition loses the motion, the coalition stays in place without the need for fresh elections. But if it passes and the government collapses, the Greens will face uncertain electoral prospects, especially if they end up helping a coalition supported by the far-right come to power. Social Democrats face the same dilemma.

In the past a logical ally to Kurz’s party would have been the populist, rightwing Freedom party. But after the mid-2019 collapse of Kurz’s first government with them, that is no longer an option. Current Freedom party leader Herbert Kickl has never forgiven Kurz for forcing him out as interior minister.

Much of the Freedom party rank and file hold a similar thirst for revenge. Indeed, the rightwing party’s leadership calculate that passing over the chance of a return to government might be worth it in the long run if it means ending Kurz’s political career.

Austria’s chancellor-designate, current foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg © Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Notwithstanding the question of the outcome of the legal cases against him, Kurz’s biggest challenge may emerge from within his own party.

On Thursday, People’s party bosses stated they could contemplate no government without Kurz at its head. But the politician, who has remoulded the image of the party in the past five years, is a relative outsider.

Support from the regional bosses who wield major power in the party will be crucial. While he can count on the backing of the party’s Lower Austrian faction, the Tyrolese and Upper Austrian factions are showing signs of disgruntlement and the question of whether Kurz will become a liability is now on the table.

As damaging as the legal allegations are the hundreds of pages of evidence and text messages published by prosecutors exposing a mercenary modus operandi within the chancellery.

Laddish badinage on WhatsApp — in one message Kurz refers to his predecessor as the head of the party as “an arse” — may tarnish his reputation among the party faithful, many coming from Austria’s well-to-do middle class. Should his reputation as a vote-winner falter, analysts say, the People’s party will not be sentimental.

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