Austria’s Kurz Goes for Victory Hoping to Pillage Populist Vote

Boris Groendahl
Austria’s Kurz Goes for Victory Hoping to Pillage Populist Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is going for broke.

Hours after his nationalist deputy resigned over a Russia scandal, Kurz dumped his far-right partner and began campaigning for early elections. Europe’s youngest leader, currently at 34% support in polls, can rule alone if he wins by a landslide, unencumbered by what has always been an uncomfortable alliance.

That’s a big if. After keeping the country on tenterhooks for eight hours, Kurz went on the offensive, declaring the Freedom Party unfit to govern even as he praised policies he’d put in place with its support over the last 17 months.

Austrians who like the turn the country has taken would have to vote for him, he said in a televised address witnessed by almost quarter of the population on Saturday evening.

“Kurz is effectively betting on a collapse of the Freedom Party,” said Carsten Nickel, an analyst at advisory Teneo. “That is extremely risky in a country where the far-right has systematically established itself for decades.”

The move builds on Kurz’s conviction, borne out by opinion polls before the video scandal erupted this weekend, that his tough stance on immigration, tax cuts and benefits for Austrian families remain popular with voters even if they are appalled by the scandal-ridden Freedom Party. He also made it clear that he doesn’t see a way to continue this program with the second-biggest party, the Social Democrats that were his People’s Party’s partner in most coalitions since 1945.

It’s a big gamble for Kurz, who rode to power in 2017 on a hard-line immigration platform that stoked conflict with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and marked him as a rising young conservative despite Austria’s relatively small size.

Kurz cited other Freedom Party scandals, including its links to far-right groups as well as racist slogans and poems that he’d “swallowed” to keep the government intact until now.

“I want to work for our beautiful country, with the support of a majority of the people but without incidents, accidents and scandals,” Kurz said. “I don’t think I can do that with anybody else right now.”

Still, before calling the new vote, Kurz did attempt to save the coalition, according the Freedom Party. However, the chancellor made the removal not just of Strache, but also of Interior Minister Herbert Kickl a condition for continuing, according to Kickl’s Facebook page.

A first test of his strategy will come as soon as next week in European elections that now have become unpredictable for Austria. The real proof will be the early election likely to happen in September, as President Alexander Van der Bellen said after meeting Kurz on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Austria is sifting through the ruckus caused by the video that toppled Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and triggered an election in the space of hours. Questions such as who produced the sophisticated setup, kept it under wraps for two years and leaked it shortly before EU elections set private and social media abuzz.

“Game Over!,” titled Kronen-Zeitung, Austria’s most-read newspaper, summarizing a broad consensus that Saturday’s meltdown had been inevitable.

Austria’s opposition parties -- encouraged by protests in Vienna on Saturday -- are trying to put the blame the situation on Kurz.

“He was responsible for bringing the Freedom Party into government,” said Pamela Rendi-Wagner, head of the Social Democrats. “It’s his project that’s plunged Austria into this political chaos and put stability at risk.”

The collapse of the Austrian coalition is a massive defeat for one of Europe’s most successful populist parties, a week before European Parliament elections in which nationalists from the U.K. to Poland want to strike a blow against the establishment. It’s also a sign of Europe’s political fragility as the decline of many mainstream parties makes coalition governments more unstable.

“Kurz didn’t tame the populist right, rather they shot themselves in the foot, as they have always done in the past,” said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst and consultant in Vienna. “It’s a setback for his project that this government fails after less than two years.”

It’s “illusory” for Kurz to think he can win a majority of seats, because the Freedom Party constituency may remain more stable than expected, Hofer said.

Strache himself laid out in his resignation speech the strategy to neutralize the embarrassing video, suggesting there were “foreign intelligence services” behind it and saying “this was a targeted attempt of political assassination, this was hired work.”

Kurz wants to continue governing until the election but didn’t say whether he would keep Freedom Party ministers. Also unclear is what happens with the coalition’s unfinished business, including tax cuts and a revamp of banking supervision and the central bank that haven’t passed parliament yet.

--With assistance from Jonathan Tirone and Patrick Donahue.

To contact the reporter on this story: Boris Groendahl in Vienna at bgroendahl@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at cthomas16@bloomberg.net, Zoe Schneeweiss, Tony Czuczka

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