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Profile: Austria’s ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the one-time ‘Wunderkind’

"Whizz-kid" was just one of the monikers given to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz when in 2017 he became the world's youngest democratically elected leader aged 31. Four years later, as he announces his departure from politics, here's a look at his rise and fall.

Profile: Austria's ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the one-time 'Wunderkind'
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at Prater amusement park in Vienna, Austria on May 19, 2021. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

It’s been an eventful four years for Kurz, including two governments – one with the far-right and then one with the Greens – and a major corruption scandal that led him to resign from the top job in October before announcing he was fully stepping back from politics on December 2nd. 

Along with nine others, he still faces claims that government money was used in a corrupt deal to ensure positive media coverage between 2016 and 2018. He has always denied these allegations and vowed to clear his name.

‘Saint Sebastian’

Growing up in Vienna as the only child of a secretary and a teacher, Kurz became active in the ÖVP at the age of 16.

Having dropped out of his law studies to focus on politics, he first entered government in 2011 as secretary for integration, and then as foreign minister two years later, aged 27.

Full of praise for Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Kurz claimed credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016.

Surfing a wave of feeling against traditional figures in politics, Kurz wrested control of the ÖVP in 2017 and transformed it into the “Liste Kurz”, a movement centred on his own image.

READ MORE: Just how much trouble is Sebastian Kurz in? 

He swiftly axed the ÖVP’s coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), prompting snap elections in which his campaign propelled him to the top job.

The youth and dynamism his supporters credit him with are also at the fore of an official biography whose sycophantic tone was widely mocked on social media.

Passages describing how Kurz “uttered his first words at the age of 12 months” and lauding his “bravery” as an adolescent prompted critics to dismiss it as a hagiography of “St Sebastian”.

READ ALSO: Who’s who in Austrian politics?

‘Political stunt’

Kurz has stunned observers time and again. His coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) collapsed in 2019 when his junior partner became engulfed in a corruption scandal.

In the aftermath, Kurz himself became the first chancellor in Austria’s post-war history to be removed in a no-confidence vote in parliament. 

But in snap elections later that year, Kurz once again led his party to top polls, even managing to expand his support base, picking up unhappy FPÖ voters.

In order to have the necessary majority to govern, he then formed a coalition with the Greens in January 2020 – a first at a national level.

But Kurz maintained fighting immigration as one of his core promises, which caused frequent frictions with his new partners.

READ ALSO: How the Kurz corruption scandal exposes Austria’s press freedom problems

Sudden resignation

It was the Greens who finally increased the pressure on Kurz in autumn 2021. Vice Chancellor and Greens leader Werner Kogler on Friday asked the ÖVP to name another chancellor, saying Kurz was “no longer fit for office”.

Earlier this year, the Greens had stood by the chancellor’s side when prosecutors announced they were investigating Kurz for giving false testimony to a parliamentary committee in a different case

In the past, some have accused Kurz of being a “mini-dictator” and running the ÖVP as a “one-man show”.

While some of his admirers have made parallels with the similarly youthful French President Emmanuel Macron, his detractors see him more as a budding Orban.

Kurz’s boycott of the UN migration pact, welfare cuts for asylum seekers and a raft of other anti-migration measures have made him as divisive a figure as his Hungarian counterpart.

At the same time, he has been careful to present himself as pro-European and avoid any slips of the tongue — at least publicly, until a raft of compromising messages were leaked from investigation files in recent months – some of which led to the allegations against him.

On December 2nd, the former ‘Whizz Kid’ shocked some observers with the announcement he was leaving politics.

He described the last few months as “an incredibly tense time” and a “rollercoaster of emotions”. He said the recent birth of his son made him realise he no longer wanted to be in politics. In reference to the allegations against him, Kurz described himself as “neither a saint nor a criminal” but maintained that the corruption claims are false.

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CRIME

Austrian ex-chancellor Kurz found guilty in false testimony trial

An Austrian court on Friday found former chancellor Sebastian Kurz guilty of giving false testimony to a parliamentary inquiry, handing him an eight-month suspended jail sentence.

Austrian ex-chancellor Kurz found guilty in false testimony trial

The verdict came at the end of a months-long trial for the former politician once hailed the “wunderkind” of Europe’s conservatives.

Kurz, 37, said he would appeal the verdict, calling it “surprising” and “not fair”.

“I am very optimistic” for the appeal, he told reporters outside the court.

Kurz was sentenced for having misled a parliamentary inquiry probing wide-ranging corruption scandals that brought down his first coalition government with the far-right in 2019.

The charismatic hardliner, who left politics in 2021, still faces an another corruption investigation.

Prosecutors in this case had insisted there was “no doubt” Kurz – who headed the ruling conservative People’s Party (OeVP) until 2021 – deliberately gave wrong testimony for “political reasons”.

In his closing statement before the verdict, Kurz said he had felt “defenceless” and “terrible” in the face of the prosecutors’ accusations.

He had been accused of downplaying his influence in appointing key officials, including the head of the state-owned holding company OeBAG.

The judge found him guilty of making false statements about his involvement in the appointment of the OeBAG board.

But he ruled Kurz was not guilty over his statements pertaining to its head, Thomas Schmid.

Rival witnesses

Throughout the trial, which took 12 days spread out since October, Kurz portrayed himself as the victim of a selective prosecution and an opposition out to “destroy him”.

Kurz said that while he had been informed about the appointment of key officials, he had not decided on them.

He dismissed prosecutors’ suggestions that he had sought to control key appointments.

Schmid had testified that Kurz in fact held the reins and could veto any appointment of personnel in key companies.

Among the other witnesses who testified were two former finance ministers, who backed Kurz, as well as two Russian businessmen who spoke via video conference from the Austrian embassy in Moscow.

The Russians gave testimony as defence witnesses that discredited Schmid – though one of them raised eyebrows when he said Kurz’s lawyer had helped draft his statement.

Further investigations

Prosecutors are still investigating Kurz on suspicion of having embezzled public money to fund polls skewed to boost his image, and to pay for favourable coverage.

But they have so far failed to obtain any convictions in that case.

They began investigating after a video emerged in 2019 showing Kurz’s then-vice chancellor – from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) – offering public contracts to a purported Russian investor for campaign help.

The FPOe slumped in popularity after the scandal, but under new leadership it has bounced back to top the polls.

Currently, it is polling at about 30 percent ahead of elections expected in September.

Kurz is now involved with numerous private international enterprises.

In 2022, he launched a cybersecurity company with the former head of Israel’s NSO Group, which makes the controversial Pegasus spyware.

It is the first time in more than 30 years that a former chancellor has stood trial.

In the last case, Fred Sinowatz of the Social Democrats was found guilty of giving false testimony, and received a fine.

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