When Sebastian Kurz was asked to be State Secretary for Integration in 2011, he was 24 years old.
It was a new position, and then-ÖVP party chairman Michael Spindelegger knew he was taking a chance. So did Kurz. “I was downright shocked,” he told journalist Edda Graf in a recent interview. He still hadn’t completed his law degree. “I told him that while I was very honored by his trust, I thought we had better not do that. The public would never understand why a 24-year-old should hold such an important office.”
The next day, he became Staatssekretär. And every day, as the challenges crossed his desk, he felt he had to prove himself twice over. Many assumed he would fail. Within six months he was being hailed in the media as a Wunderknabe, a Boy Wonder, on his way to becoming the country’s most popular politician. Promoting a policy of “integration through achievement,” he expanded language and job training and eased the path to citizenship for integrated migrants. In 2013, he succeeded Spindelegger as Austria’s foreign minister, the youngest in the world by a wide margin.
Now four years later, Kurz is the ÖVP leadership’s unanimous choice to head the party, following the sudden resignation of Vice Chancellor Reinhold -Mitterlehner on May 10. Initially reluctant, Kurz accepted, but only on terms that give him wide authority to reshape the party and define his own program and team. Once again, a radical break with the past.
In his six years in government, Kurz has made a series of bold moves that have confirmed his political instincts: Following the bloodbath at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, he warned sharply against a general suspicion of Muslims, which he called “fatal”. Islam is part of Europe, he insisted, while sharpening prohibitions against foreign financing of Islamic associations, and ordering an overdue review of some dodgy Islamic kindergartens.
His biggest gamble came after the flood of refugees into Europe in 2015, with over a million passing through and nearly 100,000 filing asylum applications in Austria. Acting with remarkable speed and effectively alone, Kurz used the West-Balkans Conference in Vienna in February 2016 to lead the closure of the so-called Balkan Route. “Austria is overwhelmed,” Kurz told reporters at the time. Within six months, it had clearly worked. Even Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel quietly shifted his way.
His present overwhelming popularity reflects all this: The public had had enough of uncontrolled chaos at the borders that was swelling the lines at the unemployment office. Kurz, with his steady hand, has now wrested the role of guardian at the gate from the FPÖ’s H.C. Strache. With coalition partner Chancellor Kern, he speaks politely but gives nothing away.
If “Boy Wonder” sounds like a horse at the starting gate, it may be time to place a bet