It’s not over for Sebastian Kurz.
In the wake of his sudden resignation on Saturday evening following allegations of corruption, it quickly became clear that Austria’s soon-to-be ex-chancellor has no intention of riding quietly off into the sunset, in large part because it isn’t yet clear if voters really want him to.
Though Kurz’s move came as a surprise after he had insisted for days he wouldn’t step down, it made tactical sense. His other option was to face a no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday that he was certain to lose, triggering a chain reaction that would have left his party in opposition.
Beyond the obvious downsides to that scenario, there was another consideration: A government coalition comprised of Kurz’s sworn political enemies would have had free rein to investigate every nook and cranny of the intricate political machine he has constructed over the past several years.
Not only that, a new government would have wasted no time in taking an ax to the apparatus Kurz has built. Since first becoming chancellor in 2017, he has placed allies in every key institution in the country, from the powerful public broadcaster to the constitutional court. Diluting that influence would have been the first priority for a coalition of his rivals.
That reality goes a long way in explaining Kurz’s sudden change of heart.
Once the Greens, the junior partner to his People’s Party in the governing coalition, made clear on Thursday, a day after the police raided the chancellor’s office, that they weren’t going to support him anymore, Kurz had no real choice but to pull the ripcord.
The question is where he’ll land. He plans to remain the leader of his party and take control of its powerful parliamentary group. Whatever his methods, there’s little question that Kurz revived his center-right party, which is a big reason the party faithful have stood by him.
That devotion has fueled speculation that he will remain chancellor in everything but name.
Indeed on paper, his successor, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, looks to be a true loyalist. A career diplomat, he worked as a key adviser to Kurz after the latter became foreign minister in 2013 and has remained a close ally.
Yet the kind of power Schallenberg will enjoy as chancellor has a funny way of shaking loyalties. What’s more, Schallenberg, an aristocrat whose forebears were prominent Austrian noblemen in the military and government going back centuries, knows a thing or two about politics and the exercise of power. Few had ever heard of the well-spoken diplomat when he was named interim foreign minister two years ago — and he’s now about to ascend to his country’s most important political office.
Just last week, in the wake of news about the corruption accusations against Kurz, Schallenberg signed a letter together with other People’s Party Cabinet members insisting that the coalition could only go forward “if Sebastian Kurz is at the top.”
Time will tell whether his decision to accept the position of chancellor despite that pledge is evidence of deep loyalty to Kurz or that he recognizes a good opportunity when he sees one.
A more immediate threat to Kurz’s future in politics than keeping ambitious rivals at bay is the corruption probe itself. He stands accused of masterminding a conspiracy to pay off pollsters and journalists to publish false information that served his political agenda, beginning when he was foreign minister in 2016, when he and his allies were quietly plotting to take over the chancellery. He hasn’t been indicted yet, much less tried, suggesting that the legal process could take years to play out.
Kurz’s strategy thus far — to cast himself as the victim of overzealous prosecutors (echoing Donald Trump’s “witch hunt” theme) and profess his innocence — hasn’t resonated beyond his core base.
Nor has Kurz’s repeated insistence that he should be considered “innocent until proven guilty.” While that’s obviously the case in a strictly legal sense, the political realm, as Kurz knows all too well, operates to a different set of rules than a court of law.
The text message exchanges uncovered by investigators, the veracity of which Kurz has acknowledged, might not land him in jail but they are damning by most standards of integrity. All the more so if one considers that Kurz sold himself to voters as a do-gooder who would put an end to the cronyism and back-room dealing that typifies Austrian politics.
In one of the exchanges that have been published in recent days, Kurz asks a confidant if there’s any way he can stop a plan to fund more after-school care for families. At the time, Kurz’s party was the junior partner in government to the Social Democrats. Kurz’s team had hatched a plan to force the head of his own party to resign so he could call for a snap election (which he expected to win) and become chancellor. But he had yet to set that scheme in motion and he now worried that the childcare aid, which was supported by the head of his own party, would prove popular with the public and endanger his own pursuit of the chancellery.
“This is not at all good!!!” Kurz wrote to a colleague in frustration, asking what they could do to stop it.
In the end, the effort to halt the program failed. But within a year, Kurz succeeded in becoming chancellor anyway. Whether that victory came as a result of the Kurz campaign’s alleged effort to falsify polls and pay off journalists to run them is bound to be the subject of continued debate.
Criminal or not, the text message exchanges expose a propensity on Kurz’s part to play by his own rules, not to mention more than a hint of ruthlessness. Another cache of internal communications between Kurz and close aides released earlier this year hinted at the cutthroat tactics his party was willing to employ. The latest revelations go further in pointing to Kurz as the mastermind.
The jury is out, however, on whether Austrians will really care in the end, especially if the investigations drag on, which they appear likely to. Kurz is by far the most popular politician of his generation and his policy record is seen in a positive light by much of the country. What’s more, the opposition is weak.
One of the hallmarks of any good politician is the ability to make voters forget the negative. If the Kurz scandal has proved anything so far, it’s that the young Austrian is prepared to go to great lengths to help them.