In the decade before young Sebastian Kurz’s takeover of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), it appeared to be little more than a holding company for a fractious coalition of regional interests, the lowest common denominator of which was desire for power. Kurz’s genius was the professionalized marketing of the party (turquoise!) around his person: the well-spoken, perfect son-in-law. But with Kurz now gone, it has become clear that his sound and fury ultimately leaves very little for the future ÖVP to build on.
Kurz’s electoral success was so unprecedented that, just recently, the party appeared inseparable from him. He threw out the stale messaging of an earlier generation, and regional barons subordinated their voices so long as the Wunderkind delivered votes. Yet as his fortunes faded, undone by corruption investigations first, and then finally by mismanagement of the pandemic, it became clear that the regional leaders had no compunction about cutting the albatross from their collective neck.
Matthias Strolz, the former leader of the NEOS, said in an October panel discussion on ORF that it would take some weeks before the ÖVP processed the resignation of Kurz as chancellor. And indeed, regional barons soon realized there was no future in a vengeful, comeback-plotting leader trying to evade and ignore the Damoclean sword of Lady Justice – all to the detriment of the ÖVP-led government. Furthermore, Kurz’s association with the deadliest policy failure in the history of the Second Republic would not be soon forgotten.
Rearranging the deckchairs
With Kurz gone, it has become clear how negligibly he changed party structures and ideologies. The reshuffled cabinet, led by Karl Nehammer, is a mosaic of “System Kurz” remnants and regional party interests, with the Lower Austrian branch of the party (NO-ÖVP) commanding supremacy.
The original NÖ-ÖVP patrons of Kurz, such as Erwin Pröll, Michael Spindelegger, Wolfgang Sobotka and the incumbent governor of Lower Austria, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, were all regional heavyweights. Some of Kurz’s closest associates, such as Stefan Steiner, Gerald Fleischmann and Bernhard Bonelli, first earned their stripes in the NÖ-ÖVP orbit. Without regional support, Kurz’s party takeover would not have been possible.
The NÖ-ÖVP was a similarly necessary actor in Kurz’s undoing, and the new cabinet shows it remains the boss. Karl Nehammer was a Kurz stalwart but equally close to the NÖ-ÖVP. His successor as interior minister, Gerhard Karner, is an old hand from the NÖ-ÖVP and an experienced guardian of the party-linked networks in the security and intelligence services.
Meanwhile, Nehammer has thrown out close allies of Kurz, such as Gernot Blümel and Bernhard Bonelli. The rest of the Kurz faction is weak and likely to either be subsumed or phased out by the new party coalition. Elisabeth Köstinger only remains as agriculture and tourism minister because of support from the farming lobby. Alexander Schallenberg was a close Kurz ally, but is first and foremost a career diplomat, enabling his return to the foreign ministry.
Yet the power centre now emerging within the ÖVP is driven primarily by the need to stop the descent into directionless chaos. Nehammer is a placeholder, whose task is to steady the ship and steam further losses. Ideally, he could even win back support from disaffected voters, preventing the potential formation of a left-liberal majority in new elections.
For now, the ÖVP finds itself where it was five years ago. Kurz was not a political visionary, but a figurehead whose primary service was to centralize communications and borrow anti-immigrant messaging from the far-right while trading horses with whichever interests would keep the party – and therefore him – in power. In the end, he had few partners or horses left, rendering him a liability.
Kurz has often been compared with the “illiberal democrats” of Central Europe. There is a lot to support this theory: the majoritarian conduct; prickly relationship with the courts; cozy relationship with key media; populist discourse. Yet a neglected comparison is with a politician once held to be the polar opposite of the charismatic young man, a veteran who outlasted the Wunderwuzzi onceso admired by factions of her own party: Angela Merkel.
Merkel is far from the image-fixated populism of Kurz. But like him, her party’s success became entirely dependent on her person. She also had no particular strategic vision; few reforms were enacted under her 16-year tenure. The policies she oversaw were either the domain of her coalition partners or reactions to cataclysmic events. She was a political loner, grooming no successors even if she opened the CDU to the youth.
Merkel and Kurz often seemed to represent the two different directions that European centre-right parties could take. But the irony is that, as both leaders retire from politics under very different circumstances, they leave their respective parties in a very similar place: paralytic chaos, with little sense of strategic as well as ideological direction. Strong leadership, whether imagined or real, does not necessarily prevent the flood after.