Man without Qualities

by Holly A. Case and John Palattella


Sebastian Kurz, Ankara 2015

[John Palattella is editor-at-large at The Nation and contributing editor at The Point.]

On Sunday, October 15, the New York Times ran a story on the Austrian parliamentary elections that were being held that day. "As Austrians head to the polls Sunday," the web teaser said, "Foreign minister Sebastian Kurz's far-right Freedom Party is expected to grab a share of power in the next government."

Later in the day, the heading was corrected: Kurz is not a member of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), but rather the leader of the conservative People's Party (ÖVP). Yet the Times' mistake was a telling one. Even for some in Austria it has been difficult to tell the difference between the positions of the far right and those of Sebastian Kurz.

Kurz is thirty-one years old, hitherto Austria's youngest foreign minister, and the youngest head of one of the two parties in the outgoing governing coalition. On May 14 of this year, in what felt like a well-orchestrated and oddly consensual coup, the ÖVP handed its own head to him on a platter, agreeing to all seven of his conditions for assuming party leadership. The conditions included absolute decision-making power over party matters, as well as the party's unqualified support for a ticket he later ran as part of a movement under his own name in the parliamentary elections. The party agreed to everything, in writing. Comparisons multiplied: Is Kurz the Austrian Macron? Or Victor Orbán (Hungary's right-wing populist prime minister), who was among the first to congratulate him for the coup? Or "Recep Kurz" (a riff on Turkey's neo-authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan)? One thing is certain: after Sunday the election, in which the ÖVP came in first with 31.6 percent of the vote, an increase of 7.6 percent from the party's performance in 2013, Kurz will almost certainly be Austria's new chancellor—the youngest the country has known—and calling the shots for the next five years.

Politics does not have many child prodigies, and foreign policy in particular has long been the domain of old hands. But for over a year now there has been a swelling fascination with Kurz, who, in addition to serving as Austrian foreign and integration minister, is also now chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ask around Austria and everyone seems to have a favorite Kurz anecdote. There's the one about how, during a municipal election campaign in Vienna, he drove a "cool-o-mobile" as party girls threw black condoms to the people; or the time he took an economy seat on a commercial flight and received an enthusiastic ovation from fellow passengers; or how he used to stroll through the outdoor Hannover Market, in the middle of one of Vienna's most diverse neighborhoods, and address the Turkish vendors by name. Members of his party have long spoken of him like a horse they're waiting to trot out for the big race. In December, when Kurz entered a room to take a seat beside the Czech foreign minister at an event on regional cooperation, an economist leaned over to whisper to his neighbor: "Behold, Austria's next chancellor!"

Kurz has garnered attention far beyond Austria, not least of all for raising his own profile by countering the refugee policies of German chancellor Angela Merkel. This, coupled with his well-spoken demeanor, youthful good looks, and forthcoming manner with journalists, has made him both a darling and bête noir of the German press. The major conservative German daily Die Welt once ran a full-page interview with Kurz, featuring a photo of him in what an Austrian commentator described as a "James-Bond pose": tailored black suit, "looking like he's out to save the world from a villain." His coup within the party was front-page news in one of the largest German dailies.

What has the boy-diplomat done to deserve this kind of attention? Some say nothing besides taking credit for others' faits accomplis. Kurz regularly boasts that through negotiations and agreements with Southeastern European countries, he pushed to secure the EU's external borders against migrants and refugees by constructing fences and setting up checkpoints along the EU's otherwise "soft" southern frontier. He has also been an outspoken critic of the Turkish government's authoritarian policies since the failed coup, so much so that in the wake of the EU parliamentary decision to suspend the EU accession process with Turkey last fall, the Austrian Foreign Ministry's website was targeted by a cyberattack originating from Turkey.

Even among Austrians who don't like his party, Kurz enjoys some respect for his eloquence, apparent accessibility, rhetorical sobriety, and understated style. At the meeting to vote on handing him the keys to the ÖVP, the young foreign minister sauntered through the journalistic gauntlet with apparent relish, even as other party members rolled up in hired cars with tinted windows. A retired left-leaning literary critic could see in Kurz the hope of Austria's political future, if for no other reason than that he seems capable of attracting populist admiration without himself being a populist. After taking full control of his own party, he moved to draw not just other party's voters, but even their star politicians into his movement and onto his ticket.

Whether Kurz is a populist is a question open to debate. The convergence of Kurz's agenda with the ideas and ideals of the populist right is one of the reasons the trajectory of this fresh-face from a small country who had never run for public office until this election has outsized significance. In the German daily Die Zeit, a journalist who has been following Kurz's career since 2011 wrote an open letter to the Austrian foreign minister, recalling the statesman's younger days when "You surrounded yourself with successful model-immigrants, brought a civilized tone to the debate on foreigners, and were as proper as a mail order son-in-law during public appearances." Mixing with migrants was nothing new for Kurz. As the Austrian magazine Profil reported in the spring, when he was a schoolboy his parents sheltered a Bosnian family that had fled the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

Nowadays Kurz is not often seen among refugees, even though he insisted on adding the Minister of Integration portfolio to his job title six years ago. His campaign and office have been called out for falsifying reports and charts relating to refugees' and migrants' movements and beliefs, exaggerating the role of religion in their lives and politics, and misrepresenting their views on Austrian culture. Kurz has often said that the key to getting a grip on the refugee issue is providing "help on the spot" to them before they reach Europe. Yet on his watch the Austrian contribution to the UN World Food Program has dropped to less than 10 percent of what it once was. "No one can accuse you of being drunk on humanity," the open letter concluded. One of the charts Kurz's campaign falsified showed Austria paying more than almost any other country on the list for development aid. The only problem with the chart was that it left seven countries that contributed considerably more than Austria off the list, and counted Japan, the US, New Zealand, and Australia as "European" countries.

Late last year, Kurz came under fire for openly supporting the authoritarian government of Macedonia during a campaign rally there, calling the country "a very important partner" without whom "we wouldn't have been able to close the Balkan route." He repeated this praise even after members of the governing party violently attacked and injured members of the opposition in the Macedonian parliament. In the words of one commentator from the European Stability Initiative, "So respect for rule of law turns irrelevant once you help keeping refugees out? Is this Austria's alleged support of Macedonia's path to [the] EU?"

In short, Kurz is putting a polite, electable face on illiberal positions he has adapted from the far-right FPÖ, founded in 1953 by a former SS officer and now led by Heinz-Christian Strache, who was involved in a militant neo-Nazi group during his youth, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reminded its readers a few days before the Austrian election. Furthermore, wherever Kurz goes may well have bearing on the trajectory of Europe more generally in a political climate where masses of voters want "ni ni" (neither nor). Although Kurz has said that "The EU is for me and my entire generation the quintessence of Austrian normality that no one can question," he seeks a "shared success" mainly in the form of keeping migrants and refugees out. Ruth Wodak, a sociologist who studies language, media, and political rhetoric at the universities of Lancaster and Vienna, recently described the campaign formula of both the far-right and Kurz as follows: "First you construct scapegoats, then you style yourself as a savior," a strategy that, "because it fans the flames of fear and envy, seems to work every time." Exclusion is really the one theme that recurs across Kurz's domestic and foreign policy aspirations: "Whether it's about the Mediterranean route, a tax reform, or public health," wrote Eric Frey in July, Kurz's "answer is exclusion."

Kurz's decisions in the coming months will determine whether it is possible to shore up Europe by building fences and forming regional alliances, or whether you also have to articulate the values you have decided to defend with all those borders and alliances. He told an interviewer on April 26, 2017, that he was for a "Europe of subsidiarity that is strong in big questions, but pulls back where national states can decide better than Brussels." The language of European "solidarity," he added, was the language that the "good Central Europeans" (read "Germans") used against the "evil Eastern Europeans" and was part of the problem. A former Austrian diplomat calls this Kurz's politics of "can't do," a sharp contrast to German chancellor Merkel's "Wir schaffen das" (We can do it). Kurz prefers to enumerate what he believes his country cannot handle—namely immigration, integration, EU cost- and responsibility-sharing policies and initiatives—rather than what it can. And unlike every one of his predecessors in the Austrian chancellor's office, he is neither Christian, nor democrat, nor social. "His age: 30 years. His program: Me," read the subhead of an article in a German daily back in May.

Intentionally or not, Kurz is testing the ideas of his late countryman, the philosopher Karl Popper, who framed the liberal dilemma as a "paradox of tolerance," in accordance with which "unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance." Popper's philosophical work was consumed by the desire to shore up liberal democracy against assaults of Nazism and Communism that he had witnessed firsthand; he believed that liberal democracy could survive only if we "claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant." Will Kurz tolerate the radicalism of right-wing populists in the name of ameliorating the threat of Islamism? Will he seek to hold the line on both? Or will he remain a cipher, a "ni ni," the latest incarnation of his late countryman Robert Musil's famous "man without qualities"? "Because the human being is just as capable of cannibalism as it is of the critique of pure reason," Musil wrote, "it can do both with the same convictions and qualities, when the conditions are right and if very large external differences correspond to very small internal ones."