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Scandal-hit Austria: New chancellor, same policies

October 13, 2021

Sebastian Kurz has stepped down, but not aside. With close ally Alexander Schallenberg now in the top job, the former chancellor hopes to continue pulling the strings in the background, say analysts.

Schallenberg signs certificate of appointment at swearing-in
Austria's new chancellor was chosen by his scandal-engulfed predecessorImage: JOE KLAMAR/AFP

After being engulfed in political drama over the last few days, Austria has a new head of government; however, apparently, a reluctant one. Alexander Schallenberg, who has taken over from Sebastian Kurz, describes himself as being "chancellor against his will."

At his inauguration in the chancellery on Vienna's Ballhausplatz, the former foreign minister said the post was an honor that "he had never wanted for himself." But he also said it was an honor that he could not refuse. After all, Schallenberg, a close ally of the former leader, had been asked to take on the job by Kurz himself.

Kurz resigned on Saturday amid serious corruption allegations against him and a number of his allies in the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). He was forced to step down after the party's coalition partners, the Greens, threatened to pull out of government.  

Kurz sees himself as the victim. The world's youngest head of government had a meteoric rise in his career; he was only 31 when he became chancellor.

"This is not about me, this is about Austria," he said in a television address.

Werner Kogler sitting next to then chancellor Sebastian Kurz
Green party politician Werner Kogler (left) pulled the plug on KurzImage: Herbert Neubauer/APA/picture-alliance

Tunnel vision on chancellery 

But many of Austria's political commentators don't quite buy the former chancellor's unusual selflessness. After all, the revelations of the recent corruption scandal laid bare that a "Kurz system" had existed years before. The aim of what was dubbed "project Ballhausplatz," named for the location of the chancellery, was for Kurz to take over the conservative party and then the position of chancellor.

Sebastian Kurz used political instinct, cunning and intrigue to maneuver himself to the top of the beleaguered party in 2017. He gave the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) a makeover, rebranding the party as "Liste Sebastian Kurz," and changing the party colors from black to turquoise. Kurz won the elections and ejected the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) from the chancellery.

Kurz at election rally in front of balloons and banner reading: A new style
Fresh-faced Kurz gave his party a makeover and became chancellor in 2017 Image: Getty Images/AFP/G. Hochmuth

With its staunchly conservative course and fresh faces, Kurz's party won the most votes. When it came to forming a coalition government, Sebastian Kurz didn't shy away from getting into the political bed with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). He even took over many of their populist policies toward immigrants and buddied up to far-right governments in Poland and Hungary. Kurz categorically refused to accept asylum-seekers under the European Union's refugee relocation scheme.

When the People's Party's coalition partners, the Freedom Party, was forced out of government in 2019 after a distasteful scandal, Sebastian Kurz had no misgivings about forming a coalition with the Greens despite their many political differences. He proved himself to be flexible.

Some politicians within the far-right Freedom Party, like Gottfried Waldhäusl, see him as an opportunist. After Kurz's election victory in 2019, the Freedom Party politician from Lower Austria predicted that his coalition with the Greens would only last two years.

"He is Austria's biggest opportunist," said Waldhäusl. He says there was no way that Kurz could keep all his promises. Perhaps Waldhäusl was only upset because Kurz's revamped People's Party managed to steal the Freedom Party's thunder and attract far-right voters. Text messages from Kurz and his entourage that have recently come to light speak of becoming a "more modern" version of the Freedom Party.

Is Schallenberg a stand-in for Kurz?

Austria is unlikely to change its political course much under its new chancellor. In his first appearance in office, Alexander Schallenberg promised (or, one could say, threatened) to collaborate closely with Sebastian Kurz. The former chancellor will remain the People's Party leader, as well as the head of the parliamentary faction.

"Kurz is pursuing the plan of, figuratively, stepping aside — but then standing side-by-side with the new chancellor, Schallenberg," says Petra Stuiber, deputy editor-in-chief of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. She says Kurz expects to be "the one who is continuing to pull the strings in the background."

Kurz walking out of chancellery
Sebastian Kurz may be stepping down, but is he really just stepping aside?Image: Georg Hochmuth/APA/dpa/picture alliance

The Greens want to remain in government and have gone along with this change at the top. A no-confidence vote against Sebastian Kurz that was slated for Tuesday ended up not taking place. But the opposition Social Democrats are now setting their sights on Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, another close ally of Kurz, who is alleged to be deeply mired in a bribery scandal.

It is not yet clear what else Austrian prosecutors might reveal about the goings-on in the People's Party and in the upper echelons of government during their investigations. Sebastian Kurz has denied any wrongdoing — as did the management of the newspaper Österreich, which was alleged to have published trumped-up opinion polls in return for advertisements paid for by the Austrian Finance Ministry.

What now for Austria?

It is possible that once the new chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, has overcome his reluctance to take on the new job, he will get a taste for power and attempt to escape the clutches of Sebastian Kurz. However, this route would not be likely to change much politically for the European Union or many of Austria's neighbors.

Alexander Schallenberg talking at a podium with microphones
The former foreign minister is not likely to change course with regard to the EUImage: Darko Bandic/AP Photo/picture alliance

Schallenberg says he is committed to the party's migration policy, which means closed borders and the further undermining of asylum laws. The new chancellor thinks that the EU's criticism of infringements of the rule of law by Poland and Hungary is exaggerated. He says it's important to talk to one another, and not about one another.

Austria's Balkan neighbors, on the other hand, are likely to be happy with the new man.

As foreign minister, Schallenberg was always a vehement advocate for western Balkan states hoping to join the EU — even more engaged, perhaps, than his former boss Sebastian Kurz.

This article was originally written in German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union