Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz Seeks to Draw Antimigrant Voters Back

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz Seeks to Draw Antimigrant Voters Back

Three years after the migration crisis he describes as his political epiphany, Mr. Kurz, now chancellor of Austria and at 31 among the world’s youngest national leaders, has a simple recipe for Europe’s embattled mainstream politicians seeking to halt the rise of antiestablishment groups: Move to the right on issues like migration. Don’t lecture your voters. Listen to them, even if you don’t like what they say.

“The mishandling of the migration question in Europe has certainly created a very fertile ground for protest parties,” Mr. Kurz said during a recent interview at his Vienna office.

“If centrist parties face the challenges and start working for their people more efficiently, the ground for left- or right-wing populism will become less fertile,” he added in a nod to the current political upheaval in Italy, where an unwieldy coalition of populist parties from both the right and the left is forming a government.

Mr. Kurz visiting the Macedonian border with Greece on Aug. 24, 2015, when he spoke with migrants, aid workers and local politicians. Photo: Dragan Tatic

Like no other politician in Europe, Mr. Kurz embodies the dilemma that bedevils the political center, which is bleeding votes to radical parties fueled by migration angst and eroding trust in the elites. His supporters see the Austrian chancellor’s forthright stance as reclaiming voters who have peeled away to the extremes; his detractors say he has given into them.

Mr. Kurz’s approach reflects a stark conversion for a self-described liberal politician who grew up alongside Bosnian refugees his parents had volunteered to host, and who launched his meteoric political career campaigning for what he called a welcoming policy toward migrants.

After taking the helm of the People’s Party, a center-right pillar of post-World War II Austrian politics, a year ago, Mr. Kurz shook it up with a tough anti-immigration line and simple, bare-bones political language. He cruised to an electoral victory that just a few months earlier had seemed impossible, and promptly entered a coalition with the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party or FPÖ.

For supporters even beyond Austria, Mr. Kurz has become a prototype of what a re-energized political mainstream with a harder edge could look like on the old continent. European conservatives see him as a respectable alternative to the centrist order of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, with its pro-migration policies and emphasis on social justice. His brand of conservatism marks a return to more traditional views than those Ms. Merkel has gradually embraced in the course of her three terms—but without harshly rejecting traditional economic and foreign-policy positions, as nationalist anti-immigration groups have done.

As Austria’s foreign minister in February 2017, Mr. Kurz visited Macedonia’s southern border with Greece. Photo: ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Kurz’s rapid rise came in part after his outspoken opposition to the German chancellor’s decision to welcome over one million people to Germany in 2015 alone.

“Kurz was brave to confront the migration issue early on, and now many of his then opponents have realized he was right,” said Jens Spahn, Ms. Merkel’s health minister, whom some tip as her possible successor.

To his critics, however, Mr. Kurz isn’t an answer to populism but an example of how the political center is succumbing to populist ideas and language on immigration, Islam, and other hot-button issues.

His governing alliance with the FPÖ, which took power in December, has overhauled tax and welfare policies and pledged to slash social benefits for asylum seekers who haven’t been paying into the system. Mr. Kurz’s approval ratings have been rising ever since, while the far-right coalition partner—a party set up by former SS officers in the 1950s—has suffered from a string of scandals, including senior members being exposed for praising the Holocaust in neo-Nazi songs.

Mr. Kurz’s government amounts to a “spiritual symbiosis of former conservatives and the nativist right,” said Christian Kern, who preceded Mr. Kurz as Austria’s chancellor. The Social Democrat also accused Mr. Kurz of cutting taxes for big companies at the expense of ordinary people and startups.

Critics say Mr. Kurz’s opposition to immigration and his criticism of Islam as a hindrance to integration are hard to distinguish from those of the many far-right parties that have surged across Europe.

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“On the one hand he took votes from FPÖ…on the other he made their crusader-like politics socially acceptable,” said Armin Thurnher, a left-leaning Vienna publisher.

Another focus of suspicion is Mr. Kurz’s closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even as 28 countries including the U.S. expelled Russian diplomats earlier this year in response to a nerve-agent attack in Britain that London blamed on the Kremlin, Mr. Kurz refused to join in, citing Austria’s neutrality.

More than anything, Mr. Kurz’s hard line on illegal immigration—he says he welcomes skilled workers—has defined the early months of his chancellorship. And he goes further in his prescriptions than most continental conservatives.

Mr. Kurz doesn’t just want to close the borders to illegal migrants. Asylum seekers caught trying to cross the Mediterranean should be sent back, he says, and those who manage to land should be deported to processing centers set up in third countries—a position that echoes Australia’s widely criticized policy of expelling would-be refugees to detention camps abroad.

Speaking from his austere office at an otherwise lavish 18th-century feudal palace once used by legendary diplomat Prince Metternich, Mr. Kurz brushed aside the criticism. He said his credentials as a free-marketer, tax-cutter and enemy of red tape showed he rejected the dirigiste economic instincts of far-right movements in Europe.

But Mr. Kurz, who hails from a low-income family and lives in a small flat in a working-class area of Vienna, insists that some of the populists’ criticism of an “out-of-touch” political establishment was warranted.

“Many politicians are far removed from their own electorates and continue to make the mistake of ignoring their voters’ problems because they live in their own world,” Mr. Kurz said. Leaders, he added, didn’t know what it meant to live in mass-migration areas “where the security situation has deteriorated and people no longer feel at home in their own neighborhood.”

Critics saw a U-turn in the new, tough migration stance of a politician who once created policies easing the way for asylum seekers, says Paul Ronzheimer, author of a best-selling biography of Mr. Kurz.

“His answer is: ‘I haven’t changed, the circumstances did—there is a limit to how many people society can integrate,’” Mr. Ronzeimer said.

In recent months, Mr. Kurz’s policy has gained traction among such leaders as President Emmanuel Macron of France, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, all of whom have embraced a tougher line on immigration under popular pressure.

Even some left-wing politicians, such as Germany’s former Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, are now echoing Mr. Kurz’s arguments. Politicians’ “children don’t go to kindergartens and schools with 80% migrant share,” Mr. Gabriel recently wrote.

To underline his common touch, Mr. Kurz flies economy on state business and walks to work, a novelty in Austria, an affluent nation fond of hierarchy and decorum. On a recent Aeroflot flight to Moscow, he patiently stood in line for the lavatory behind Russian seniors and their noisy grandchildren.

Mr. Kurz first entered government at 24 as junior minister for integration, where he won plaudits for efforts to integrate young migrants by providing tailored education. In 2013, aged 27, he was promoted to foreign minister, and it was in that capacity that Mr. Kurz soon showed his steely side: At the height of Europe’s migration crisis of 2015, he turned against Ms. Merkel’s open-borders policy, which she was seeking to anchor with a quota system binding on all European Union members.

In February 2016 he gathered regional leaders at a Vienna conference and brokered a deal to close borders to refugees despite Berlin’s resistance.

This made him the darling of Eastern European leaders opposed to the German-inspired EU policy to resettle refugees across the bloc. Mr. Kurz, who maintains a cordial relationship with Hungary’s strongman leader Viktor Orban, says he is lobbying politicians such as Mr. Macron to abolish the divisive regulation.

Mr. Kurz at the Macedonian border in August 2015, when more than 1,500 mostly Syrian refugees, trapped in a no-man’s land for three days, entered Macedonia from Greece. Photo: Fabrizio Di Nucc/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When Austria takes over the EU’s rotating presidency in July, Mr. Kurz says he will push to create a tough pan-European border force and asylum processing centers in Africa.

“Kurz has learned from what didn’t work—to put it mildly—in countries such as Germany,” said Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a former German defense minister. “If he succeeds, he will unleash interesting debates that may help turn the populist tide.”

But if he fails, Mr. Guttenberg added, Mr. Kurz might have paved the way for a populist takeover by inviting them into government and elevating their policies to the mainstream.

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