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article image'Emperor Kurz', the Austrian whizz-kid on the path to power

By Nina LAMPARSKI (AFP)     Oct 12, 2017 in Politics

Sebastian Kurz's gaze is focused, his grip firm, each step appears carefully measured.

Bit by bit, Austria's 31-year-old conservative chief scales a mountain in his campaign video, displaying the determination that is expected to see him become Europe's youngest leader on Sunday.

"It's time to bring our country back to the top," the People's Party (OeVP) leader says in a measured voice in the clip.

There is no mention that Kurz's spectacular ascent to power is also likely to usher the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe) back into government.

But if experts are correct, the wealthy nation of 8.75 million people will take a significant step to the right for the first time in a decade, possibly becoming another headache for an already beleaguered European Union.

"Whizz-kid", "Basti Fantasti", "Messiah" -- these are just some of the monikers given to the fresh-faced wonder boy who became OeVP boss in May.

The takeover by "Emperor Kurz" proved radical.

First he ended the decade-long unhappy coalition with the Social Democrats (SPOe). Then he rebranded the OeVP and its black party colour as a turquoise "movement" tough on immigration and Islam.

The strategy of "putting Austrians first" propelled the sluggish OeVP to pole position in opinion polls, leaving the scandal-plagued SPOe of Chancellor Christian Kern fighting for second place with the FPOe.

- 'Black makes you hot' -

On the campaign trail, Kurz gets a rock star welcome. Fans sporting turquoise T-shirts chant his name, women ask if they can hug him.

Selfie sessions with Kurz, always in slim-cut suits and tieless white shirts, last over two hours.

Thousands march in front of the Austrian parliament at the 'Refugees Welcome! No to Fortress Eu...
Thousands march in front of the Austrian parliament at the 'Refugees Welcome! No to Fortress Europe!' rally in Vienna
JOE KLAMAR, AFP/File

"I think he is a very young and dynamic person who wants to bring a new style into politics," said captivated party volunteer Michael Schellnegger, 22, at a recent rally in Graz.

Observers say there hasn't been this much euphoria over a politician since Joerg Haider, the magnetic but controversial FPOe leader who died in a drink-driving car crash in 2008.

"Kurz will not be happy to hear that his phenomenon isn't all that new and resembles the... expectations placed in Joerg Haider," said journalist Christa Zoechling of current affairs magazine Profil.

Kurz's appeal as an agent of change is remarkable given that he has been a key cog in the political machine he now seeks to overhaul.

The only child of a secretary and a teacher, Kurz joined the OeVP's youth wing in 2003.

As its chief, he drew ridicule with a 2010 council election campaign featuring the slogan "Schwarz macht geil", or "Black makes you hot".

Kurz posed with skimpily clad girls on top of a black Hummer, the so-called "hot-o-mobile", and distributed black condoms.

This blunder notwithstanding, the former law student enjoyed a meteoric rise, becoming secretary of integration in 2011 and foreign minister two years later, aged just 27.

Kurz claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016 to halt a record influx of migrants to Austria and other wealthy EU member states.

The move saw him named one of the most influential Europeans by news website Politico.

Full of praise for Hungary's populist premier Viktor Orban, Kurz wants to slash benefits for all immigrants and shut Islamic kindergartens.

- No room for error -

Outgoing Austrian parliament
Outgoing Austrian parliament
Thomas SAINT-CRICQ, AFP

The notoriously private politician -- he's seldom seen in public with long-term girlfriend Susanne -- left "nothing to chance" and ran a campaign as immaculate as his trademark gelled-back hair, observed Der Standard newspaper.

Even his OeVP takeover had apparently been months in the planning, according to a leaked document.

The skilled orator is also a sharp opponent in televised debates.

"You couldn't even get an appointment with Viktor Orban but I can help you with that," Kurz recently mocked FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache over his government inexperience.

Critics have accused Kurz of being a "mini-dictator" running a "one-man show".

Some analysts warn that Kurz's election could be an "earthquake" for the EU, despite his pro-European pledge.

"He's a 'Haider light' version," said Paris-based Austria expert Patrick Moreau.

Kurz's ideas on everything from immigration to economic policy represent a "complete rupture" with the EU, Moreau added.

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