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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Austria set to elect youngest leader in the world

Sebastian Kurz, 31, emerged from weekend voting in Austria as the leading force in country’s politics

Top candidate of the People's Party Sebastian Kurz attends his party's victory celebration meeting in Vienna, Austria. Dominic Ebenbichler/ Reuters.
Top candidate of the People's Party Sebastian Kurz attends his party's victory celebration meeting in Vienna, Austria. Dominic Ebenbichler/ Reuters.

He has been dubbed the “Wunderwuzi” of Austrian politics and looks set to steal the crown of youngest head of government from other European leaders.

Sebastian Kurz, 31, emerged from weekend voting in Austria as the leading force in country’s politics. Should he seal a coalition agreement, probably with the anti-immigration Freedom Party, the unmarried Kurz will take the rise of youthful European statesmen to a new demographic, the millennials.

As prime minister, Mr Kurz would take the crown from Ireland’s Leo Vardarkar, 38, who pipped France’s Emmanuel Macron, 39, to the distinction earlier this year. Mr Kurz is also younger than the 33-year-old North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

The Austrian People’s Party took around 32 per cent of the vote and, without a majority, will most likely form a coalition with the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO). It was fighting for second place with the centre-Left party of Chancellor Christian Kern with both hovering around 26 per cent with postal votes still to be counted.

Born in the Austrian capital in 1986, Mr Kurz studied law at the University of Vienna after completing compulsory military service.

Having been elected chairman of the youth branch of the conservative Austrian People’s Party in 2009, Mr Kurz became a member of parliament in 2013. In December that year he became Austria’s foreign minister and rose to become leader of his party in May 2017 succeeding Reinhold Mitterlehner.

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After taking over his party, he ended a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPO) but in the wake of his victory yesterday, he was careful not to rule out any option for composing his new government.

“Neither a coalition with the far-right FPO nor one with the SPO has been agreed,” Mr Kurz told broadcaster ORF. “We have to wait for the result.”

Mr Kurz’s elevation has moved his party to the right, and he won the election with a campaign mainly based around immigration.

"Mr Kurz used his personal popularity and his rebranding of the OVP to push the party into first place," Pepijn Bergsen, Austria analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit said. "Mr Kurz has tapped into frustrations around this and around the European migrant crisis by emulating much of the FPO's [far-right] platform."

He has pledged to take a hard line on refugees and prevent a repeat of Europe's migration crisis, which has appealed to more conservative, right-leaning voters.

Domestic policies include shutting main migrant routes into Europe, capping benefits for refugees and barring foreigners from receiving benefits until they have lived in the country for five years.

"We must stop illegal immigration to Austria because otherwise there will be no more order and security," Mr Kurz told tabloid daily Oesterreich ahead of his election.

On the European stage, he is also likely to push for much tougher measures on shoring up Europe’s borders. "The strong performance of FPO is likely to bring a tough stance on migration to the European debate," Barclays Bank said in a note to clients.

Outside of politics, Mr Kurz is unmarried and dating finance ministry worker Susanne Their, who he met at the age of 18.

During his electoral campaign, out went the party’s trademark colour black to make way for dashing turquoise blue. Gone too were the party’s letters ÖVP on the campaign posters: beside a photo of the ‘Wonder Kid’ staring in the distance, they were replaced by ‘Kurz 2017’.

Mr Kurz cultivates a clean cut image, sporting mostly slim-cut suits and tieless white shirts. At campaign events fans in turquoise T-shirts chant his name and women ask if they can hug him. Selfie sessions with the wonderwuzi can last over two hours.