Austria's conservative 'wunderwuzzi' Sebastian Kurz likely to be Europe's youngest leader at 31

Kurz has helped steer the center-right People's Party further right.

— -- On Sunday, Austria’s center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) won the parliamentary elections, putting its 31-year-old leader Sebastian Kurz on a track to become Chancellor of Austria and Europe’s youngest national leader.

Kurz, dubbed “wunderwuzzi” meaning “wonderkid,” called for a snap election back in May and announced his candidacy for chancellor in June in a bold gamble that he won when voters handed his party about 32 percent of the vote.

He currently serves as the country’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration, a position he was appointed to in 2013 at the age of 27 -- the youngest to hold the post in Europe.

As Foreign Minister, Kurz hosted a conference on nuclear weapons in 2014 and later hosted the talks that lead to the Iran nuclear deal, signed in Vienna in 2015. The year before, he invited 30 foreign ministers to Vienna to negotiate solutions to the Ukraine crisis.

Domestically, he has introduced and supported policies that lean more right-wing than center-right, politically.

In January, he called for a ban on the Islamic headscarf for school teachers and other public servants in Austria. He was also one of the decision-makers behind legislation that banned full face veils such as the burqa in public places in Austria. The ban came into effect earlier this month and Kurz vowed that it would be strictly enforced. In August last year, he told The Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, ORF, that the full body veil is "hindering integration" and that it is "not a religious symbol, but a symbol for a counter-society."

He has also criticized Austria’s large neighbor Germany for its “open-door policy” that has welcomed a million refugees from Syria and Iraq since 2015. Kurz went in the opposite direction of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying that Austria couldn’t take anymore migrants and that he was prepared to send troops to the Balkans to close the border. Kurz claims that he has reduced migration to Europe by taking the initiative to close the Balkan migration route, shut last year.

Some criticize Kurz for mimicking the policies of Austria’s extreme-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), despite his leadership in what is billed as a more centrist party, while others praise him, arguing that his tough stance on migration appeals to voters and reduces the actual power of the radical right.

Before Kurz took over leadership of his party in May, polls predicted that the Freedom Party could win the election. In Sunday’s election, the Freedom Party’s vote share increased, but they came third with about 26 percent of the vote.

“By election day, the FPÖ had faded to the background behind the ÖVP’s charismatic new leader,” wrote Alex Jarman, a Fulbright-Schuman fellow in the Institutions Unit at the Centre for European Policy Studies, in an analysis published by the London School of Economics. In the same analysis, Jarman argued that Kurz' strategies may work in the short-term to stop the far-right from dominating Austria’s politics, but that Merkel’s approach in Germany will work better in the long-term.

Austria’s electoral system makes it difficult for a party to gain a majority on its own, which is the case for Kurz’ People’s Party that will need to form a coalition to govern the country. Kurz will likely attempt to form a coalition with the Freedom Party, which is expected by some to make a lot of demands rather than act as a friendly partner.

“Kurz’s actions do not address the underlying factors fueling radical right-wing populism in Austria," Jarman wrote. "While Kurz has reduced the FPÖ’s prominence in the short term, he has also brought radical right-wing populist ideas into the mainstream of Austrian politics. This action will not easily be undone, and future populists will be able to take advantage of it to bring more instability to Austrian politics."

The contrast between Kurz' tactics with Austria and recent policies in Germany, he added, will likely result in different long-term outcomes.

"Germany, meanwhile, has taken the opposite approach," Jarman said. "It faces greater risks from radical right-wing populists in the short term, but is less likely to see a long-term populist impact on its political system."