Austria's Sebastian Kurz preaches change, faces challenges

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Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. (Photo: AP)

VIENNA (AP) — Young, dynamic and preaching renewal, Austria's next likely leader, the 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, is already inviting comparisons with French President Emmanuel Macron.

But while Macron is making good on promises of systemic change, Austrian politics could largely remain business as usual under Kurz, whose hands might be tied both by his own party and any coalition partner.

First the similarities: Macron at 39 is one of the European Union's youngest political leaders and Kurz will be Europe's youngest if he manages to form a government after his right-wing People's Party came first in Austria's national election on Sunday.

To varying degrees, both can claim to have created a new political movement to shake up the establishment — while both made their reputations in the establishments they now criticize.

Currently Austria's foreign minister, Kurz, like Macron, exudes a youthful, can-do image. Both have poached experts from other parties and from the private and academic sectors. And both are proponents of economic liberalism, in comparison to the rival Social Democratic or Socialist parties that have dominated their countries' political landscapes for decades.

But they differ on one major EU issue: immigration. Whereas Macron won office in France opposing the anti-migrant stance of the far-right National Front chief Marine Le Pen, Pepijn Bergsen of the Economist Intelligence Unit says Kurz won in Austria "by co-opting much of the platform" of the xenophobic, right-wing Freedom Party.

And Kurz will have significantly less freedom to set his agenda.

Macron essentially created his own party, trouncing traditional rivals in the presidential vote last spring and in parliamentary elections in June. The ascent of his Republic on the Move! party left France's once-powerful Socialist Party in tatters and defanged the conservative Republicans.

With his political opposition on the ropes, Marcon has already signed a string of changes to French labor laws to reduce unions' powers and give employers more freedom to hire and fire. Passing such measures just four months after taking office is remarkably quick in a country known for its resistance to reform.

Last week Macron launched Step 2 of what he hopes are sweeping labor reforms focusing on unemployment benefits and re-training programs. He also unveiled a budget that abolishes the wealth tax — another change from the previous Socialist administration that hiked taxes on the rich — and includes big cuts in both spending and taxes.

Kurz, in contrast, cannot govern alone. His party came in first Sunday but substantially short of an absolute majority, meaning he will need a government coalition partner. Most likely is an alliance with the right-wing Freedom Party, although a revived coalition with the Social Democrats also is possible.

Thanking supporters after his victory, an exuberant Kurz cast his win as a chance "to establish a new political style."

"I promise you that I will fight with all my power and passion to make a change in this country," he said.

But with both potential partners differing on key issues with his People's Party, Kurz will have to make concessions that could dilute his own agenda — or face the kind of squabbles that crippled Austria's former governing coalition.

And, says analyst Anton Pelinka, any coalition partner will be keen to throw sand in his gears because "they cannot let him present himself as the total winner."

Kurz's own party may also cause him to stumble.

When he became party leader last spring, Kurz secured promises of unprecedented power to set policy and appoint people. He quickly went about changing the party's image as a cozy old-boy network mostly interested in maintaining the status quo. Campaign posters no longer mentioned the party, showing instead a smiling Kurz and the slogan "Time for Something New!" — an audacious move considering that he was part of the old government coalition that imploded.

But powerful People's Party figures still exist — the provincial governors, along with business and labor groups and other interest groups that have traditionally dominated Austrian decision-making. Now that the party's goal of winning is accomplished, there's no guarantee that they will not attempt to wrest back power — and derail hopes that Kurz can affect quick, streamlined change.

"It remains to be seen to what degree Mr. Kurz will be able to control the traditionally powerful interest groups in his party," said Bergsen.

Pelinka warned that Kurz may be challenged sooner than later.

"Right now, Kurz and the 'old' People's Party are only on honeymoon," he said.

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