Master of simple messages

Conservative leader Sebastian Kurz rose to the top of Austria’s government by borrowing populist far-right ideas and presenting them in a moderate way, over and over again.
“We are opposed to the idea that migrants can choose the best welfare system,” is one of his typical phrases that the 31-year-old chancellor often uses to argue why asylum seekers should not be allowed to move between European countries.
Kurz, who is Europe’s youngest head of government, delivers such lines in a calm manner, in contrast to far-right Freedom Party leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who tends to become agitated when his speeches turn to migration.
Kurz was no immigration hard-liner when became the Interior Ministry’s state secretary for integration of migrants at the age of 24.
He launched school projects with Austrian entertainers, athletes and entrepreneurs with foreign backgrounds, creating role models for young migrants. The young politician also reached out to Austria’s Muslims, declaring that “religion can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.” That stance was in line with his upbringing.
His mother and father — a teacher and a technician — had welcomed refugees from the Bosnian war into their home, and young Sebastian went to school with many migrants in a working-class district in Vienna.
Kurz’s tone changed during the migration crisis, along with a shift in public sentiment. While many Austrians initially welcomed the 90,000 asylum seekers who came in 2015, those who were worried about safety, financial burdens and Islam soon became more vocal.
By that time, Kurz had become foreign minister. He proposed restrictions to bring irregular immigration down to zero, including offshore reception centres modelled on Australia’s controversial asylum seeker islands. In his quest for popularity, Kurz has not shied away from targeting immigrant children. He has demanded the closure of Muslim day care centres, and he plans to lower child welfare for foreign workers whose children live abroad. In October, he won the parliamentary election after having redesigned the staid centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) as a popular movement, similarly to La Republique en Marche, the party created by France’s young President Emmanuel Macron. However, Kurz did not simply lead a spontaneous party revolution.
Having joined the OeVP while he was still in high school, he was apolitical veteran who had carefully secured the support of senior party figures and donors before he became OeVP chief in May 2017. — dpa