Sebastian Kurz’s last chance

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VIENNA — Sebastian Kurz better hope the third time’s the charm.

Austria’s past and future leader appeared triumphant this week, presenting his party’s 326-page coalition deal with the Greens Thursday at a painstakingly choreographed press conference that felt more like the rollout of a new iPhone than a political event.

Nothing was left to chance. The government program not only has a bespoke title (“Out of Responsibility for Austria”), but a slick logo in the national colors as well. Kurz, in a perfectly cut suit, his trademark quiff sitting flawlessly, described the pact as “the best of both worlds,” that is the conservative and the ecological.

For Kurz, the coalition is something else: a last opportunity to prove that he’s more than just a pretty face.

Since taking over Austria’s center-right People’s Party in the spring of 2017 when he was 30, Kurz has pulled the plug on not just one, but two governing coalitions.

While all government coalitions are marriages of convenience, Austria’s new government is above all one of political necessity.

The first instance, a “grand coalition” under the leadership of the Social Democrats, was strategic; Kurz saw an opening to take control and seized it by triggering a snap election which vaulted him into power a few months later with the far-right Freedom Party.

The second implosion, which came in May after Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on video trying to trade political favors for money, was anything but planned. The scandal (dubbed the “Ibiza affair”) ended Kurz’s first outing as chancellor just six months into the government’s five-year term.

Critics of Kurz’s decision to get into bed with the far-right in the first place felt vindicated; the scandal exposed not only the depth of the corruption in the Freedom Party but also the young chancellor’s naivety.

Austrian voters saw things differently, convinced by Kurz’s arguments that he carried no blame for the fiasco.

True to his reputation as the Alpine nation’s political Wunderkind, he emerged from the episode not only unscathed, but stronger, leading his party to a clear victory in September’s election with more than 37 percent of the vote. The other big winners in the election were the Greens, paving the way for Austria’s first conservative-Green coalition at federal level.

So all’s well that ends well?

Don’t count on it.

While all government coalitions are marriages of convenience, Austria’s new government is above all one of political necessity.

The fallout from the Ibiza affair tested the country’s constitutional order like no other event since the country’s political rebirth in 1945. With the Freedom Party discredited and the Social Democrats in disarray after suffering heavy losses in the election, the only viable option was a tie-up between Kurz’s People’s Party and the Greens.

As both sides are quick to acknowledge, they are far from ideal partners. Indeed, the Greens were founded in opposition to the very establishment principles Kurz’s conservatives hold dear.

While the Greens, who have been buoyed by growing public concern over climate change, will have broad control over Austria’s environmental policy according to the coalition deal, they will have almost no say over asylum and migration policy, a topic of deep importance to much of their base.

Many in the party are disappointed that the agreement includes provisions to extend a ban on headscarves in schools until the age of 14 and to allow for “preventative custody” of suspects deemed to pose a danger to the public, even if they haven’t committed a crime.

That the Green leadership is prepared to accept such measures illustrates just how much pressure they faced to reach an agreement.

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz | Roland Schlager/AFP via Getty Images

Just two years ago, voters ejected the Greens from parliament after infighting led to a split in the party. Under Werner Kogler, the Greens’ new leader, the party has been rejuvenated. Refusing to join a Kurz government, which would have opened the door to another coalition between the People’s Party and the far right, would have been taken as a betrayal by many voters.

A final decision on whether to go ahead with the coalition is expected at a Green party congress on Saturday, but few believe delegates will turn their thumbs down.

“The question is what the alternative would be,” Harald Walser, a longtime Green MP who helped negotiate the deal, said on Austrian radio. “The Greens now have to live up to the responsibility they’ve been given.”

Kurz appears to have reached the same conclusion.

Though the Freedom Party is more in tune with his views than the Greens on his signature issue, migration, Kurz would have risked international condemnation by pairing up with the far right a second time, especially in the wake of the tawdry scandal that brought the last coalition down.

Outside of Austria, news of the coalition deal was received with enthusiasm in many quarters, especially in Germany, where commentators fantasize about a similar coalition between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Greens.

“Look to Austria!” the Bild tabloid gushed, describing the coalition as a “triumph.”

If it’s not, Kurz is bound to find Austrian voters less forgiving the fourth time around.

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