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Exit of Austria's Kurz sparks comeback rumors

Julia Zappei - Agence France-Presse
Exit of Austria's Kurz sparks comeback rumors
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz arrives to give a press statement on the government crisis at the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Austria, on October 9, 2021. Austria's Sebastian Kurz announced he is stepping down as chancellor on October 9, 2021, after he was implicated in a corruption scandal. On October 6 prosecutors raided several locations linked to Kurz's right-wing People's Party (OeVP) and announced that the 35-year-old and nine other individuals were under investigation over claims that government money was used in a corrupt deal to ensure positive media coverage.
GEORG HOCHMUTH / APA / AFP

VIENNA, Austria — Having just quit as Austria's chancellor after a tumultus four years in power, some commentators think Sebastian Kurz is already plotting a comeback despite the corruption allegations against him.

Media and other observers have widely declared that Kurz's replacement — named by the conservative himself — is just a place holder while the 35-year-old fights the graft accusations that engulfed him last week.  

"Kurz remains in a position of strength and dreams of returning to the post of chancellor," analyst Patrick Moreau said.

Kurz — once touted as a "whizz kid" who became the world's youngest democratically elected leader in 2017 at age 31 — will continue to head his People's Party (OeVP) and also lead it in parliament so that he will be "omni-present", Moreau added.

Kurz himself said in a statement Monday on Facebook that he was "not a shadow chancellor".

Kurz, known for his hard line on immigration, is credited with pushing up the popularity of the OeVP, one of the Alpine EU member's two biggest parties, which he took over in 2017 after an ugly leadership battle.

His first government with the far-right collapsed after a year and a half in 2019 when his ally got caught up in the so-called "Ibiza-gate" corruption scandal.

But snap elections returned his party on top — with an increase in votes — and Kurz in an about-turn formed a coalition with the Greens. 

Tarnished image

"The PP (People's Party) doesn't really have a real replacement for Kurz,"analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP, adding many OeVP voters "have a close emotional relationship to him".

"They see the new allegations as some sort of campaign against a successful chancellor," he said.

Kurz has dismissed the graft allegations against him as "false" and vowed to fight them, but there is no doubt they have hit him hard.

On Wednesday prosecutors raided several OeVP-linked locations over allegations that between 2016 and 2018 finance ministry resources were used to pay for opinion polls -- partially manipulated and then published in one of the country's biggest tabloids — to paint Kurz in a good light.

"Kurz certainly wants to be back -– but this, of course, does not only depend on him but on the developments on the judicial front," said Hofer.

It is not just the prospect of criminal charges for corruption that is doing the damage.

Chat messages leaked from investigation files have painted Kurz "as a man thirsty for power, surrounded by a praetorian guard as efficient as they are unscrupulous," according to Moreau.

"His image as a young and sympathetic superman is definitely damaged," Moreau added.

His resignation followed intense pressure also from within his own ranks for him to step back, as some inside the party have started "to consider him as a liability rather than an asset," said analyst Julia Partheymueller.

Snap elections?

President Alexander Van der Bellen swiftly declared the political crisis over, thanking Kurz for stepping down and swearing in his replacement on Monday.

But some observers say it is far from clear what will happen now.

"The Greens say that they would want to continue the coalition until 2024, but I think many are now preparing themselves for snap elections in 2022," Partheymueller told AFP.

Moreau too said a new election might be "inevitable".

If Kurz was not prosecuted, he could well be the one to lead his party to another election success, he added.

AUSTRIA SEBASTIAN KURZ
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