Austria's Sebastian Kurz: fallen 'Wunderkind'

Vienna (AFP) –


"Whizz-kid", "Basti Fantasti" and "Messiah" -- just some of the monikers given to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz when in 2017 he became the world's youngest democratically elected leader at just 31 years of age.

But less than four years and two governments later -- one with the far-right and then one with the Greens -- Kurz on Saturday spectacularly announced his resignation amid a graft investigation.

Kurz and nine others are facing claims that government money was used in a corrupt deal to ensure positive media coverage between 2016 and 2018.

Kurz has denied the allegations as "false" and vowed to clear his name, saying he will be "able to clarify it; I'm sure about that".

- 'Saint Sebastian' -

Growing up in Vienna as the only child of a secretary and a teacher, Kurz became active in the OeVP at the age of 16.

Having dropped out of his law studies to focus on politics, he first entered government in 2011 as secretary for integration, and then as foreign minister two years later, aged 27.

Full of praise for Hungary's populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Kurz claimed credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016.

Surfing a wave of feeling against traditional figures in politics, Kurz wrested control of the OeVP in 2017 and transformed it into the "Liste Kurz", a movement centred on his own image.

He swiftly axed the OeVP's coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe), prompting snap elections in which his campaign -- as immaculate as his trademark gelled-back hair -- propelled him to the top job.

The youth and dynamism his supporters credit him with are also at the fore of an official biography whose sycophantic tone was widely mocked on social media.

Passages describing how Kurz "uttered his first words at the age of 12 months" and lauding his "bravery" as an adolescent prompted critics to dismiss it as a hagiography of "St Sebastian".

- 'Political stunt' -

Indeed, Kurz has stunned observers time and again.

His coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) collapsed in 2019 when his junior partner became engulfed in a corruption scandal.

In the aftermath, Kurz himself became the first chancellor in Austria's post-war history to be removed in a no-confidence vote in parliament.

But in snap elections later that year, Kurz once again led his OeVP to top polls, even managing to expand his support base, picking up unhappy FPOe voters.

In order to have the necessary majority to govern, he then formed a coalition with the Greens in January 2020 -- a first at a national level.

But Kurz maintained fighting immigration as one of his core promises, which caused frequent frictions with his new partners.

It was the Greens who finally increased the pressure on Kurz.

Vice Chancellor and Greens leader Werner Kogler on Friday asked the OeVP to name another chancellor, saying Kurz was "no longer fit for office".

Earlier this year, the Greens had stood by the chancellor's side when prosecutors announced they were investigating Kurz for giving false testimony to a parliamentary committee in a different case

In the past, some have accused Kurz of being a "mini-dictator" and running the OeVP as a "one-man show".

While some of his admirers have made parallels with the similarly youthful French President Emmanuel Macron, his detractors see him more as a budding Orban.

Kurz's boycott of the UN migration pact, welfare cuts for asylum seekers and a raft of other anti-migration measures have made him as divisive a figure as his Hungarian counterpart.

At the same time, he has been careful to present himself as pro-European and avoid any slips of the tongue -- at least publicly, until a raft of compromising messages were leaked from investigation files in recent months -- some of which led to the allegations against him.