Kurz, 30, is widely seen as the party’s best chance of boosting its ratings and surpassing the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ(, which is running first in opinion polls, followed by Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPÖ). He has already called for a snap parliamentary election, which Kern has said is now inevitable.
The party also granted Kurz sweeping new authority to hire and fire senior officials and determine the party’s course.
Austria’s grand coalition was on the brink of collapse Friday after Kurz signaled he didn’t believe the government should continue.
“I believe early elections are the right way forward,” Kurz, who was formally elected as head of the Austrian People’s Party on Sunday.
The move paves the way for new elections, probably by the end of October, that could see a return of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) to power. The populist party, ideologically close to France’s National Front, currently leads the polls with 30-35 percent support.
Kurz’s decision follows the sudden resignation of People’s Party leader Reinhold Mitterlehner (pictured) on Wednesday.
Mitterlehner, who has served as vice chancellor in the coalition led by the Social Democrats, said he was frustrated by the persistent infighting in the government. He added that he no longer wanted to be a “placeholder,” a reference to Kurz, a 30-year old who is Austria’s most popular politician and whose ascent to the party’s top position has been expected for some time.
Deep conflicts within the government across an array of issues have left it largely paralyzed and its collapse was viewed as inevitable by most observers. What wasn’t clear was the timing. Despite the problems, neither the Social Democrats nor the People’s Party had wanted to be the one to pull the plug. The government’s term doesn’t expire until October 2018.
Andreas Schieder, who leads the Social Democrats in parliament, insisted his party wanted to continue the government’s work and accused on Kurz on Austrian public radio of “playing tactical games for egocentric reasons.”
The comment reflected the increasingly harsh tones between the governing parties of late, a People’s Party minister going as far last weekend as accusing Social Democrat Chancellor Christian Kern of “failure” as the country’s leader.
Following Mitterlehner’s decision to resign, Kern extended an olive branch to Kurz, suggesting the two sides pursue another attempt to bury their differences.
Kurz’s statement Friday, however, ends the coalition in all but name. The formal decision will likely come next week if Kurz is named People’s Party chief on Sunday, as expected.
As a condition for taking the job, Kurz is demanding the party grant him sweeping new authority to hire and fire senior officials and determine the party’s course. That would dilute the influence of the party’s regional heads and other power centers, such as its labor wing and a farmers’ association, that have exerted significant influence on strategy and personnel for decades.
Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern arrives to attend the EU summit at the new “Europa” building in Brussels on March 10, 2017
Despite Kurz’s youth and relative inexperience, the party is likely to go along. At the regional level, the People’s Party, the traditional home of rural voters, has maintained its appeal and leads six of Austria’s nine provinces. But it has been less successful in national politics and its voters tend to be older. For the People’s Party, Kurz represents a chance at much-needed renewal.
Kurz justified his move to push for new elections by arguing that it was unrealistic to believe that reshuffling the government “and pretending like nothing has happened” would improve the coalition’s effectiveness.
“Kern held out his hand and Kurz hit it away,” Michael Häupl, Vienna’s influential Social Democrat mayor, said. “He has to take responsibility and live with the consequences.”
In fact, Kurz’s decision to trigger new elections now is a bet that his personal popularity — his approval ratings are over 70 percent — will propel him into the chancellery.
Kurz, whose rise began in 2011 when he was named a deputy minister in charge of social integration, has won over voters by advocating the closure of the so-called Balkan route traveled by refugees to reach Austria and Germany. He has also been vocal in rejecting Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, saying it was time to end the negotiations and acknowledge that it wasn’t going to happen.
Those same positions have also earned Kurz criticism from abroad, with German and European officials accusing the minister of trying to score domestic political points at home by taking extreme public positions that exacerbate an already fraught atmosphere.
Though the People’s Party currently scores in the low 20s in polls, compared to around 30 percent for the Freedom Party and just below that for the Social Democrats, its ratings are likely to get a boost once Kurz is at the helm.