Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s dramatic ouster from power, explained

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Area on the second day of an EU summit on March 22, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium.

This is the first removal of an Austrian leader since before World War II.

VIENNA — Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Europe’s youngest leader, has just been removed from power, giving him the shortest tenure in charge of his nation since World War II.

The 32-year-old Kurz, an immigration hardliner who heads Austria’s center-right People’s Party, has been portrayed as the fresh new face of Europe’s conservative future since his stunning rise to power in 2017. But after just 17 months in charge, the political wunderkind has now been ousted after receiving a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Monday.

His removal as chancellor is the stunning conclusion to 10 days of drama that have roiled the small alpine country in the wake of a major political scandal that brought his government crashing down last week.

On May 17, German media released a secret video showing the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party — which was a core part of Kurz’s ruling coalition — trying to collude with a supposed Russian national to influence the 2017 Austrian elections.

The scandal rocked Austria to its core: Thousands took to the streets of Vienna to protest and a number of government ministers resigned, leading Kurz to call for new elections in September. And on Monday, opposition politicians in Parliament called for a no-confidence vote on Kurz over his handling of the scandal and his general leadership.

As Austria proceeds with a caretaker government until the September elections, the big question now is whether Kurz can claw his way back to power and continue to lead a right-wing surge in his nation and throughout Europe.

If current trends are any indication, the answer is yes — and that’s bad news for those who wish to temper the continent’s right-leaning tilt in recent years.

“I am still here,” Kurz told supporters at a rally three hours after the no-confidence vote. “They cannot stop the change we have started,” he boomed as chants of “Chancellor Kurz!” rang out from the crowd.

A scandal in Ibiza

Kurz’s fate was sealed by a mix of misfortune and his own political miscalculation, leading to a golden opportunity that his rivals immediately pounced on.

On May 17, German media released a video showing Hanz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, talking about a deal with a woman who claimed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. The video, filmed in the summer of 2017 inside a glamorous Ibiza vacation house, shows Strache and a party colleague speaking with the woman for six hours about how she could use her money to influence Austrian politics.

This was the crux of the plan: The woman would make possibly illegal donations and buy a 50 percent stake in an influential Austrian newspaper, potentially allowing her to make its coverage friendlier to the Freedom Party’s cause.

In exchange, Strache would award her with lucrative government contracts. The politician went on to say in the video that he hoped to “build a media landscape” like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did, clearly admiring the authoritarian who has decimated the free press in his country.

The entire episode was a setup — the woman was actually not the niece of a Russian billionaire, and hidden cameras were placed throughout the vacation home. While it’s still unclear who was behind the sting, the plan worked: It exposed deep corruption and ethical ugliness at the heart of Austria’s politics.

Why Austria’s Parliament removed Kurz from power

Okay, so what does this have to do with why Kurz was removed as Austria’s chancellor? A lot, actually.

Austria has a federal parliamentary system, with a chancellor as the head of the government. Basically, voters choose which party they want to form a government, and the head of that party typically becomes the country’s leader.

Kurz’s center-right People’s Party won the most votes in Austria’s October 2017 parliamentary elections, but it still needed a partner to rule. Kurz chose Strache’s third-placed Freedom Party, founded by neo-Nazis and friendly to Russia, to become the junior member of Austria’s coalition government, making Strache the vice chancellor.

Kurz came under immense pressure from mostly left-wing critics when he made that deal, mainly because he lifted such a radical party to power. His stated hope, though, was that his center-right politics would drag the far-right junior members closer to the middle, forcing them to (somewhat) moderate their positions on things like immigration and economic populism.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Kurz received sustained criticism as some Freedom Party members made racist comments, berated the press, and tried to interfere in investigations of far-right extremists.

Kurz also took tough stands on immigration himself during the election campaign and while in power, especially against asylum seekers hoping to enter Europe. Those positions, among others, led critics to call him “Trump in a slim-fit suit.”

But once the Ibiza video came out, the walls started to cave in around Kurz.

Strache resigned within 24 hours as vice chancellor and head of his party. Kurz, fighting for his political life, withdrew his own party from the governing coalition, leading to a collapse in Austria’s leadership.

He later forced out Austria’s interior minister, also a top Freedom Party official, in a move some experts say was solely to give himself more power and kick his former allies while they were down. Other Freedom Party officials in the government resigned in protest, leaving multiple vacancies at the top of vital Austrian ministries.

In effect, Kurz was left running a caretaker government headed by unelected technocrats.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speak to the media on May 19, 2019 in Vienna. Michael Gruber/Getty Images
Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speak to the media on May 19, 2019, in Vienna.

Kurz’s main political adversary, the center-left Social Democratic Party, saw blood in the water. It quickly mobilized a no-confidence campaign to oust him from power, saying his decision to rule with the Freedom Party, his general unwillingness to work with Parliament, and his refusal to take any responsibility for the government’s fall meant he shouldn’t lead anymore.

“You need to earn trust,” Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the Social Democrats’ chair, told lawmakers before calling for the no-confidence vote. “Cooperation and dialogue are the ground basis for trust, and trust is required for a majority in Parliament,” she said. “Mr. Chancellor, you and your government do not enjoy our trust.”

But to remove him as chancellor, Rendi-Wagner needed support from others in Parliament — and she found it in the Freedom Party. Far-right lawmakers turned on their former political ally and kicked Kurz out, mainly because of how he pushed them aside once the scandal broke.

Austria will now be run by a caretaker government until the September election, or sooner if the election date is moved forward as some have called for.

But although Kurz is currently out of power, there’s a very good chance he may regain his job in just a few months’ time — and become even more powerful.

Kurz could very well become chancellor again

European Parliament elections on Sunday were extremely kind to Kurz’s party, even with the Ibiza scandal and no-confidence vote looming over it. The People’s Party won about 35 percent of the vote, up 7 points from 2014. The Social Democrats and the Freedom Party, meanwhile, received a smaller vote share this time than they did five years ago.

As a result, few believe Kurz will lose his post as head of Austria’s center-right party, meaning he will likely contend for chancellor again. And, based on the popularity of his party versus the others right now, he stands a decent chance of reclaiming his former job.

“He is in a good position to win and gain a couple of percentage points,” Thomas Hofer, a professor of public communication at the University of Vienna, told the New York Times on Monday.

Which means that Kurz may have suffered a major setback now, but he could return much stronger in the fall. What’s unclear, though, is whether he’ll continue to dabble in far-right politics or decide to chart a more centrist course.

The far right may also play up their victimhood — after all, they were targeted in a sting operation — to regain their previous strength within the next few months. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the center-left can take advantage of an opportunity it’s unlikely to have again.

Not even those who closely watch Austria’s turbulent politics know what’s next — and that’s worrisome to Austria’s 9 million citizens who mostly crave a semblance of order and consistency.

“Prepare for uncertain times,” Reinhard Heinisch, a professor at the University of Salzburg in Austria, told Deutsche Welle on Monday. “The post-war era of stability is over.”

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