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Favorite in Austria’s election seems open to reunion with the far right

Former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz attended a rally in Vienna Saturday.
Former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz attended a rally in Vienna Saturday.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press/Associated Press

VIENNA — When Sebastian Kurz became Austria’s youngest-ever chancellor two years ago, he made a pact to govern with the far right. He would in effect housebreak them, he suggested, checking their worst instincts.

In the 18 months that followed, Kurz, a conservative, had plenty of opportunity to try to do so: One official of the far-right Freedom Party that he had partnered with was found to use a fraternity songbook that celebrated the Holocaust. Another published a poem calling immigrants rats. A third put child refugees behind barbed wire and demanded that people who buy kosher meat register their names first.

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Then in May, an old video surfaced showing the most senior government minister of the Freedom Party fantasizing about restricting press freedom and promising government contracts to a would-be investor close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

“Enough is enough,” Kurz declared and called for a snap election.

But that was then. On Sunday, Kurz is up for reelection. And all indications are that he will not only win again — but that he also may be open to another coalition with the same far-right Freedom Party.

How Kurz, Austria’s fresh-faced, 33-year-old political wunderkind, could finesse a reunion is part of the political gymnastics of an election that follows one of the country’s biggest political scandals in its recent history.

At a time of rising nationalism and populism in Europe, Austria has become an important test case. With centrist parties shrinking and former far-right fringe parties becoming entrenched in the political landscape, mainstream politicians across the Continent have scrambled for a response.

When Kurz first bounded onto the political scene, he offered one: seizing on issues like limits to immigration and the threat posed to Austrian identity to give a youthful and more elegant repackaging to much of the agenda of the Freedom Party — and then inviting them into the government.

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Under Kurz, a former conservative youth leader who once distributed branded condoms as a campaign gag, the traditionally staid People’s Party was refashioned into a social-media-savvy political movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of new supporters.

His fans see him as one of the most gifted politicians in Europe, who turned around the fortunes of his conservative party and put his small country on the map, a role model for center-right leaders in these disruptive political times.

“Everyone wants to meet Sebastian Kurz,” said Martin Eichtinger, a former Austrian ambassador to Britain and fellow conservative. “He is a star.”

Kurz’s critics retort that he is a political shape-shifter of little conviction, and that by bringing the far right into government he has mainstreamed its hateful messaging.

“Sebastian Kurz has made the far right socially acceptable,” Reinhold Mitterlehner, a former vice chancellor and another member of his party said earlier this year.

During a recent election rally near Vienna, as dozens of adoring fans lined up to take selfies with him, Kurz said he would not exclude any party from coalition talks — and was conspicuously careful not to criticize his former coalition partners.

“The work we did as a coalition was extremely successful for our country,” Kurz said, listing lower taxes, lower unemployment, and the absence of new debt.

But what stands out most from their short-lived time in office are measures the coalition took that were aimed at making life uncomfortable for immigrants.

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Benefits were sharply cut for families with more than two children and for those who do not speak German or English. Wearing headscarves in primary schools and kindergartens was banned.

And recently arrived asylum-seekers, who have no work permit and can only do auxiliary jobs in public institutions, saw their pay curbed at 1.50 euros an hour, or about $1.65, although that measure was almost immediately overturned by the caretaker government that took over from Kurz’s coalition after a vote of no confidence ousted him following the May video scandal.

At the recent rally, several voters singled out Kurz’s hard line on immigration as the main reason he would get their vote. “He is strong on immigration,” said Gertrude Kraus, 78, who said she hoped Kurz would go back into coalition with the Freedom Party.

Still, the campaign has not been entirely smooth for Kurz.

The dust had barely settled on the outrage over the coalition-busting video — which secretly filmed Heinz-Christian Strache on the Spanish island of Ibiza in July 2017, a few months before he would become vice chancellor in the Kurz government — when Austrian papers began reporting that Kurz’s office had ordered several hard drives shredded before he left office.

Later, financial records showing questionable financing for his conservative People’s Party surfaced in the media.

Earlier this month, the former chancellor became the butt of jokes and memes, as reviewers panned the latest of three biographies documenting his rise to power as more akin to fan fiction or a steamy romance novel than a serious account of the life of Austria’s youngest, and shortest-serving, leader.

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“At first I saw only a silhouette. ‘Is it really him?’ I thought,” read an excerpt from the biography, by Judith Grohmann. “The dark brown hair, tightly combed back and the little pointed nose that protruded from his face like a laugh.

Known for his tightly controlled social media image, being cast as the dashing hero under the mocking hashtag #50ShadesOfKurz was not necessarily how the former chancellor intended to dominate Twitter during his campaign.

The book’s fawning prose was quickly skewered by influential politicians, journalists, and intellectuals. But it does not appear to have hurt Kurz’s standing.

Polls show his party enjoying 33 to 35 percent support — well ahead of its next-closest rivals in the Freedom Party and the center-left Socialists, at around 20 percent each. More than 40 percent would elect him outright.

There is no certainty that Kurz will return to his old coalition partner. When it comes to coalitions, he may have his pick, analysts predicted, and the young chancellor may be wary that a reunion would look unprincipled, even unseemly.

But if it happens, a replay of a partnership with the Freedom Party threatens to chip away at Austria’s democratic foundation, some observers fear.

For its part, the Freedom Party would certainly love to go back into coalition.

One televised campaign ad shows a couple-counseling session between Norbert Hofer, the leader of the Freedom Party, and a figure with slicked-back hair visible from behind who is clearly meant to be Kurz.

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“Do you fight a lot?” the counselor asks, as part of a longer conversation.

“Not more than others,” Hofer replies.

“Do you have different views of life?” the counselor probes. “Do you want different things?”

The fake Kurz concedes they have many “joint ideas.”

“So if I understand correctly, you have a great relationship, you get along well, you respect each other, have the same ideas. Do you really want to risk all that because of. . .”

Both: “Ibiza.”

“This kind of thing happens in the best relationships,” the counselor says. “Often you don’t know how precious it is what you have.”