How Sebastian Kurz became one of the most powerful Chancellors in Austrian History

In October 2017, Sebastian Kurz’s Conservative Party (ÖVP, rebranded: the “new” people’s party) won the Austrian national election with a hard line on immigration which often overlapped with the right-wing Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) stance, who are now their coalition partner. Here are three reasons why Sebastian Kurz is one of the most powerful chancellors in Austrian History.

  1. Establishing a new political centre of power

Sebastian Kurz‘s takeover of the Conservative Party in 2017 was not as spontaneous as it might have seemed. The relevant strategic paper, “Project Ballhausplatz,” was written even one year prior of the Executive Committee for the federal party, in which Kurz became elected party leader of the “new” people’s party. The internal paper shows how Kurz and his confidants meticulously planned their takeover. Sebastian Kurz’s strategic strength is also manifested in his personnel decisions. The newly appointed diplomats, high level officials, members of parliament and employees of government related institutions all have one thing in common: they have been part of Kurz’s inner circle of trust for years. While Sebastian Kurz was ambitious to make it to the top of the republic, the political landscape became more and more characterized by weak opponents. The political opposition was either preoccupied with itself or – in the case of the Austrian Green Party – divided into two competing groups. That is how a nearly unbreakable foundation of power was established.

  1. Reframing Immigration

Sebastian Kurz is a conservative populist, not a right-wing extremist. He realized that the Austrian immigration policy fails to reach a high number of Austrian people because it is either too complex or too extremist. The national immigration debate needed to be reframed in terms of how policy impacts thousands of people trying to hold onto a middle-class standard of living. Sebastian Kurz certainly created a new frame that emphasized insurmountable cultural barriers and that cleverly promoted his own simple message: “Closing borders to protect our social goods. Kurz has become the figurehead of the anti-welcome movement in Austria. He is tireless in making the point that he closed the so-called “Balkan route,“ and thus saved the Austrian social system. The price of this is social isolation and eroding solidarity in the Austrian society, that in turn reinforces fear and mistrust.

  1. The friendly face of surveillance

In order to keep an excellent image (professional, dynamic and popular) Sebastian Kurz has implemented various mechanisms of control. Nothing is left to chance. Every public appearance is meticulously planned and staged. Sebastian Kurz himself rarely goes into detail when talking about political issues to avoid risking a dispute over details, which may harm his flawless image. The center of Kurz’s surveillance is formed by his message control. In 2017, Kurz installed new positions of government coordinators, secretary generals, and a government speaker in order to establish a strict governmental wording and to coordinate public messages, including those of the coalition partner. Even the media is indirectly subject to, and a perfect victim of, this joint control. Kurz and his team perfected the art of managing attention. They use the concept of selective attention (focusing on one thing at a time) to maneuver attention away from negative press. Not so much through reframing the debate itself, but through distracting the country with statements so controversial that the media is forced to expend their energy on covering them. The attention goes where Sebastian Kurz wants it to go.

Contributed by Interel Global Partner Austria, Communication Matters