Opinion

Rotations in the Austrian Chancellery

Sebastian Kurz

With six heads of government in five years, Austria seems to be a member of the sporting practice of rotations, a strategy whereby no one believes that the post belongs to him or her merely because of the supposed superiority of his or her name. The latest change in the Austrian government's line-up has sent shockwaves through both the political dressing room and the public, made up of almost nine million Austrians, who are currently experiencing the taste of confinement and its corresponding renewed restrictions at home, given the explosion of infections in what is now the fourth wave of the mutant COVID-19. 

In little more than a month Austria has three chancellors: the one who caused the latest earthquake, Sebastian Kurz; his short-lived successor, Alexander Schallenberg; and the one who is finally supposed to complete his electoral mandate until the next elections, Karl Nehammer. All of them, leading or nominated by the conservative Christian Democrats of the ÖVP, are seeing their polls drop from 26 to 23 per cent, ceding first place to their Social Democrat rivals. As is almost always the case everywhere, internal party crises translate into mistrust and instability, characteristics from which, with rare exceptions, the electorate flees. 

Chancellor Kurz has been a major disappointment for the conservative ranks, not only in Austria but also in Europe. His meteoric career, which saw him become Secretary of State for Integration at the age of 24, Foreign Minister at 27, and head of government at 31, catapulted him to the head of the hopes of the majority European conservative family. His fall has been even more rapid, since he had to resign from office last October, as soon as the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office saw signs of a crime in the preparation of polls manipulated in his favour. 

He nevertheless tried to remain at the head of the party and the parliamentary group, placing as a figurehead in the Chancellery the head of diplomacy and unaffiliated Alexander Schallenberg, obviously boycotted by the party that was supposed to support him, thus making him the shortest-serving chancellor in Austrian history. This failure was the final straw for Kurz, who decided to withdraw from the political scene altogether, claiming he was looking forward to taking care of his family, especially his first child. 

Continuity on immigration and the accounts

After leaving his tutelage, the party does support Karl Nehammer, a former military officer who is about to turn 50 and has similar, if not the same, convictions as Kurz: a firm hand on immigration policy and respect for the rules of financing and accounting, both within the country and within the European Union. However, he intends to give greater impetus to far-reaching fiscal and ecological reforms, already agreed with the Greens, a minority but essential partner in the coalition government. In the meantime, he will leave it to the ÖVP itself to purge Kurz's former collaborators, who have also been targeted by the anti-corruption prosecutor's office. 

After President Alexander van der Bellen has sanctioned his appointment and that of his new ministers, the most urgent task, however, will be to deal with his confinement, initially set to end on 13 December, but which could be extended beyond the Christmas holidays if the explosion in hospital admissions makes his administration untenable. As a former professional military officer, Nehammer favours drastic measures, just the opposite of his short-lived predecessor, Schallenberg, who had opposed further confinement of citizens to their homes.  For southern Europe, Austria will continue to belong to the ranks of the so-called "frugal", i.e. with a close eye on any maniacal or wasteful fickleness.