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article imageAustria's Kurz divides voters on campaign trail

By Jastinder Khera with Blaise Gauquelin in Vienna (AFP)     Sep 22, 2019 in Politics

Love him or hate him, Austria's polarising right-wing former chancellor Sebastian Kurz is firing up voters on both sides ahead of a snap election on September 29.

At a campaign stop in the well-heeled spa town of Baden bei Wien near the capital Vienna, Kurz gave a typically smooth and polished performance, belying the strong feelings he provokes among supporters and opponents alike.

A few hundred predominantly older supporters gathered in the small square in front of Baden's imposing theatre to hear him, many sporting "We're for Kurz"-branded sunglasses handed out by fresh-faced volunteers from his centre-right People's Party (OeVP).

The cheers that greeted the 33-year-old as he took the stage gave no clue that the election was prompted by a corruption scandal which engulfed his coalition partners, the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), only four months ago.

Kurz's supporters don sunglasses branded 'We're for Kurz'
Kurz's supporters don sunglasses branded 'We're for Kurz'
JOE KLAMAR, AFP

"I'm very attached to Mr Kurz, his government was the best one we had had for a long time," said 68-year-old pensioner Inge Grzesicki, echoing other supporters in lauding Kurz's youth and dynamism.

Such descriptions could also have been lifted from Kurz's authorised biography, published earlier this month to widespread derision from reviewers claiming it had a sycophantic tone.

- 'No more immigrants' -

In his speech, Kurz repeated some of the themes that propelled him into office in 2017, capping a meteoric rise in Austria's politics that began with him entering government at the age of just 24.

Expressing sympathy for Austrians who "almost feel like foreigners... in their own neighbourhoods", he earned cheers by promising more action against illegal immigration.

That was music to the ears of Grzesicki, who said she hopes Kurz will ensure "there aren't even more immigrants coming, we already have enough".

According to political commentator Johannes Huber, Kurz hasn't been shy of stoking a "culture war" between the better-off, more Catholic population of small-town Austria, and the diverse big cities, especially Vienna.

Commentators say Kurz is stoking a 'culture war' between the better-off  more Catholic pop...
Commentators say Kurz is stoking a 'culture war' between the better-off, more Catholic population of small-town Austria, and the diverse big cities, especially Vienna
JOE KLAMAR, AFP

Huber says an example of Kurz's talent for "telling people what they want to hear" is the contrast between 2017 when he emphasised his upbringing in a working-class part of Vienna, and his current messaging about his attachment to his grandmother's village.

Sure enough, when Kurz hits the climate change section of his speech, there are promises of no "punitive measures" for rural commuters who use cars and "who don't live in the big city in Vienna".

- 'Not Orban -- yet' -

And it's in the "big city" where opposition to Kurz has been on display at Vienna's colourful "Thursday demos" -- a tradition reprised from the first time the far-right entered government almost 20 years ago.

Student Paul Benteler was among several thousand protesters at one recent demonstration and bemoaned the fact that the OeVP "used to be a Christian-Democratic party but Kurz has turned it towards right-wing populism".

Doctor and fellow demonstrator Wolfgang Schebeczek said: "He's not quite like Orban yet, but it could go in that direction", referring to Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Victor Orban.

Similar worries have even occasionally been expressed within the OeVP.

Earlier this year Kurz's predecessor as party leader Reinhold Mitterlehner accused him of "scapegoating" refugees and creating an "exclusionary, closed society".

This was dismissed as sour grapes from the man whom Kurz ousted in 2017 before rebranding the OeVP around his own image.

Kurz's relationship with the press has also been tense on occasion.

Over the past few weeks the liberal Falter weekly has published embarrassing details from the OeVP's internal accounts, including hundreds of euros spent on Kurz's hair and make-up, as well as allegations the party was breaching campaign spending limits.

The OeVP responded by saying its IT systems had been hacked and some of the leaked documents were doctored.

And what about the 'Ibizagate' scandal that brought down Kurz's coalition?

While the scandal concerned the leadership of the far-right FPOe, it was after all Kurz who brought them into government.

After his speech  the 33-year-old Kurz poses for selfies with many in the crowd
After his speech, the 33-year-old Kurz poses for selfies with many in the crowd
JOE KLAMAR, AFP

After his campaign speech in Baden, Kurz descended into the crowd for selfies, and people seemed to generally approve of the way he handled the scandal.

"Honestly, I don't think there was any better way to deal with it," said 27-year-old teacher and party volunteer Michael Capek.

However, like some others at the rally, Capek said he would be wary of another coalition with the FPOe -- seen by many observers as the most likely outcome of the election.

He pointed out that in Baden the OeVP works with the Greens -- a model perhaps for the next national government.

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