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Austria

Make Austria Great Again — the rapid rise of Sebastian Kurz

Sebastian Kurz has taken the Austrian election by storm and reshaped not only his People's Party in his own image but also that of the Alpine country. DW takes a look at his meteoric rise.

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Austria shifts to the right in parliamentary elections

If all goes according to plan in the upcoming coalition talks, Sebastian Kurz will become Austria's new chancellor and, at 31, the youngest to boot. It seems his power ambitions and plans to change Austria's image have no limits.

Kurz 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.

But his political career started in school when, just before taking his A Levels, he joined the youth wing of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and became its leader while studying law. With a string of controversial and polarizing local election campaigns in Vienna he helped the conservatives make inroads in a traditionally Social Democratic stronghold. In a show of gratitude, the ÖVP appointed him state secretary for integration in 2011. After a Social Democratic-People's Party coalition was formed four years ago, Kurz became Austria's foreign minister — the youngest top diplomat in Europe.

Sebastian Kurz on the Macedonian border

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

When a new wave of refugees seeking to relocate to Europe became a continent-wide concern in 2015, Kurz recognized Austrian voters' anxiety over unchecked immigration. He called for tougher external border controls, better integration and stringent control of "political Islam" funded from abroad. He also organized the shutdown of the popular overland route through the West Balkans. 

Read more: Austria's leading election candidates target Muslims

The man who would be king

His hard-line positions have prompted observers to call him "hard hearted," as Gemany's Die Welt newspaper did.

"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."

'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."

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.

Sebastian Kurz Wahlkampf Geilomobil (Junge ÖVP Wien)

In 2009 Sebastian Kurz used the slogan "Black is hot" for his campaign for the conservatives, whose party color is black

"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 the party's 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

Kurz's ÖVP had 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 paves the way for the far-right populist Freedoem Party (FPÖ) which performed well on Sunday and could yet finish second ahead of the Social Democrats should the results of the postal ballots go their way.

"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 said.

Read more:Freedom Party of Austria - what you need to know

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