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Austria

Make Austria Great Again: The rapid rise of Sebastian Kurz

The conservative party that 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz has reshaped in his own image is polling in first place ahead of Austria's national vote in October. A look at the country's unprecedented election.

Flying under the radar as Western politics grapples with Brexit negotiations, an unpredictable White House and Germany's national vote in September , there is something nevertheless strange and noteworthy afoot in Austria as it approaches its own elections on October 15.

The man at the center of these unprecedented developments is Sebastian Kurz. He first rose to prominence in 2013, when at 27 he became the world's youngest serving foreign minister - looking practically pubescent in photo ops with counterparts of the time, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Javad Zarif.

Kurz and Fabius in Vienna in 2014 (picture-alliance/dpa)

Although he wants to appear a political outsider, Kurz has touted his role in the landmark Iran nuclear deal talks, one round of which were held in Vienna

Though small - it may only have a population the size of London's - Austria is still ahead of countries like the UK, Germany, and Canada in terms of GDP per capita according to the World Bank. Indeed, Vienna has topped Mercer's Quality of Living survey every year since 2010.

The man who would be king

Now, Kurz is angling to become chancellor of his rich and powerful country at just 31 years old. A goal he looks ever more likely to achieve.

In the past six months, Kurz has taken power of his conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and pushed for a snap election in October (which was then approved by parliament). He has also replaced the ÖVP on the ballot with the "Sebastian Kurz List."

Though all the candidates on the list are backed by the ÖVP, it nevertheless gives the impression that he has renamed a major political party after himself.

Kurz has also caused as stir with some of his hardline political positions, such as calls to strengthen the EU's outer borders and end NGO rescues of refugees in the Mediterranean - prompting Germany's conservative Die Welt newspaper to accuse the politician of being "hard-hearted."

"He is a power-hungry neoliberal," one young voter in Vienna who asked not to be named told DW. "What does he want? The Hapsburg empire back again?"

"He's also cultivated an image as a political outsider, despite having been foreign minister for four years."

Sebastian Kurz on the Macedonian border (Getty Images/AFP/R. Atanasovski)

A trip to Macedonia in February only strengthened Kurz's desire for increased EU border security to stem the tide of refugees

'A conservative Macron or Trudeau'

According to Professor Peter Filzmaier, a political scientist with Austria's Krems and Graz universities, what Kurz has accomplished is "unprecedented in Austrian politics, but also quite logical."

"The ÖVP is an extremely complex organization, dependent on municipal and regional bodies," said Filzmaier. "He consolidated decision-making functions under the party leader, namely, himself. That's not to say he's given himself extreme powers, but it has given him a bigger say over who runs for the ÖVP at the national election."

Filzmaier also downplayed concerns that Kurz is seeking to become some sort of anti-immigrant nationalist leader in the vein of Hungary's Viktor Orban or the US' Donald Trump, stressing that the young politician is ardently pro-EU.

"He sees himself more as a conservative Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau," Filzmaier said. "He hasn't started his own party like Macron, but he has tried to make his changes in the ÖVP look like a new movement. And it's working. Before he took over party leadership in the spring, the ÖVP was lagging in third place at 20 percent in the polls. Now, it's in first place at over 30 percent."

Possible boon for far-right populists

The political scientist was cautious in appraising Kurz's chances of becoming chancellor. "Twenty-five percent of voters are still undecided after all," Filzmaier said. "What will be far more interesting is coalition negotiations after the election."

Kurz's ÖVP has been ruling in a so-called "grand coalition" with their natural rivals, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) since 2007. But now, Austria's two biggest parties have both said they refuse to rule together again.

This could prove a huge boon to the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), which made many in the European Union quite nervous during Austria's 2016 presidential election. Although the Austrian presidency is more of a ceremonial position than a powerful one, it was still a strong sign of some of the anti-immigrant fears wrought by the 2015 refugee crisis that the FPÖ's candidate Norbert Hofer won the first round of the vote with 35.1 percent support (He was eventually beaten by the Green party's Alexander van der Bellen in a run-off).

"The SPÖ and the ÖVP deciding not to govern together means there is an actual chance of the FPÖ ending up in a governing coalition," Filzmaier explained, because whether the Green party garners enough votes to join a coalition with either the SPÖ or ÖVP is a guessing game at this point.

But in the meantime, Kurz is king of the most precious campaign capital: momentum.

"When you've got momentum," said Filzmaier, "you're always present in the media. You don't need to spend a cent on ads and placards."

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