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Austria won’t have Sebastian Kurz to kick around anymore.
At least not for a while.
Kurz, the charismatic former Austrian chancellor who was forced to resign as the country’s leader amid corruption allegations in October, said on Thursday that he was leaving politics altogether for an as-yet-undisclosed position in the private sector in the new year.
“I always tried my best and did everything I could,” Kurz, speaking without audible emotion, said in remarks broadcast live on Austrian television.
The unexpected move cuts short one of the most unlikely political careers in recent European history.
Kurz burst onto Austria’s sleepy political scene a decade ago when he was a 24-year-old university dropout with a style and dynamism that instantly appealed to a demographic well outside the center-right party’s traditional base. A media-savvy operator skilled in using boyish charm to appeal to Austria’s conservative instincts, Kurz tapped into the country’s deep-seated fears over migration and Islam to fuel his rise.
By championing hardline migration policies, he became chancellor by the time he was just 31, making him Europe’s youngest national leader.
Kurz’s success in turning the stodgy Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) from an also-ran into the nations‘s dominant political force made him a star in European politics and someone conservatives across the Continent sought to emulate.
He explained the decision to end his decade-long political career on Thursday by saying that the burning passion he’d once felt for politics had dissipated in the recent past and that he wanted to devote his attention to his newborn son. He added that he had felt “hunted.”
“I’m neither a saint nor a criminal,” he said.
Austrian authorities are in the process of determining the latter claim, a reality that many observers believe is the real reason for his decision to withdraw from politics.
Kurz faces a criminal investigation for alleged perjury, blackmail and breach of trust (accusations he denies) in connection with a sweeping political scandal involving manipulated polls, payoffs to journalists and an intricate system of patronage that prosecutors say he masterminded.
Kurz, 35, had remained the head of the Austrian People’s Party after stepping down as chancellor seven weeks ago and also took on the leadership of his party’s parliamentary caucus, a powerful perch that many observers believed he would use to become a kind of shadow chancellor.
Instead, Kurz opted to lob another political hand grenade into the fray. His shock move Thursday triggered a chain reaction that by the evening had led to the resignation of his successor as chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, and a broader reshuffling of the Cabinet.
Schallenberg, who reluctantly gave up his previous job as foreign minister to take the reins from Kurz in October (calling it an act of duty), said in a statement that he wanted to make way for the new leader of the People’s Party (in Austria, the chancellor traditionally has also been the head of a party).
As of late Thursday, the new party leader is expected to be Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, who would then be poised to become the country’s sixth chancellor in five years.
Unlike Schallenberg, a career diplomat who only became a member of the ÖVP last year, Nehammer, an army veteran, is well connected in the center-right party, especially in its most powerful regional branch in the province of Lower Austria, which surrounds Vienna. (Schallenberg is expected to return to his previous position as foreign minister, making his tenure as chancellor the shortest in Austrian history.)
A Kurz confidant, Nehammer, 49, is best known for his hardline views on migration, an area he oversees as interior minister.
If he becomes chancellor, his main challenge will be to reverse the fortunes of a party that has seen its support crater in the wake of the accusations against Kurz. He will also have to steady the party’s uneasy coalition with the Greens.
The alliance has been marked by deep tension ever since Green leaders threatened to pull the plug on the coalition if Kurz didn’t step down as chancellor.
The next regular election isn’t scheduled until the fall of 2024, but given the fragility of the coalition, many observers doubt it will last that long.
Recent polls put the opposition Social Democrats in first place, signaling a possible three-way coalition with a smaller liberal party and the Greens.
A more immediate challenge for the ÖVP’s next leader will be to cope with the continued fallout from the scandal that enveloped Kurz and his inner circle.
At the center of the investigation is a trove of seemingly incriminating text messages, which have become public in irregular bursts in recent months.
Investigators discovered more than 300,000 texts on the phone of one of the central figures in the affair, but have so far only analyzed about one-third of them. That has fueled fears in the ranks of the party that more damaging revelations are likely.
That realization is sure to have factored into Kurz’s calculus as well.
Just this week, Austrian media reported on a memo found on the phone of a former ÖVP minister that appeared to undermine Kurz’s defense in his perjury case.
As long as the criminal allegations against him remain unresolved, a process that could take years, it would be all but impossible for him to lead the party into an election campaign.
One of the reasons Kurz’s appearance Thursday was notable, however, is that he didn’t rule out returning at some point. Given his youth, there might be little to stop him if he is exonerated of criminal wrongdoing, especially if the ÖVP finds itself in opposition in the coming years.
That might be why Kurz continued to cast himself as a victim on Thursday, insisting that his only aim over the years had been to serve his country, describing that service as the honor of his life.
Though he stopped short of apologizing for the chaos he leaves behind, he did offer a hint of regret.
“I wouldn’t say I never did anything wrong,” he told the assembled journalists before excusing himself to collect his girlfriend and baby from the hospital.