Much of Kurz’s job then involved communication and press work, rather than pushing actual laws. And indeed, both critics and supporters of Kurz agree on his excellent communication skills. Stefan Lehne, who held various high-ranking positions at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs until 2011 and is currently a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, attests that Kurz is a great talent when it comes to “managing political processes:” “He has a great feeling for how the public opinion changes. He’s a great communicator, but you don’t really know what he is thinking.”
Kurz relies on a tight-knit team, many of whom he has known since his days at the Young People’s Party, his party’s youth group, of which he became the national head in 2009. In their book Sebastian Kurz: Austria’s New Wunderkind? the journalists Nina Horaczek and Barbara Tóth describe how Kurz transformed the previously feeble organization into a powerful network: He frequently invited well-known politicians and founded a highly successful alumni club. Its members, highly loyal to Kurz, are now spread across the party, a priceless advantage in a party infamous for its vicious fights between different interest groups.
It worked: During the national elections in 2013, Kurz was the candidate with the most “Vorzugsstimmen” (“preferred votes”)—the Austrian election system allows people to vote for both a party and a candidate of that party—even more than the incumbent chancellor at the time. Kurz became the youngest foreign minister in the world, and that position further increased his popularity, since it allowed him to stay away from disputes about national politics. Erhard Busek, the former head of his party, called Kurz “chief commentator of the government.”
Yet he wouldn’t have become chancellor so fast if it hadn’t been for what happened in 2015. From the very beginning, with the first wave of refugees, before the public mood in Europe shifted after the Paris attacks in November and the New Year’s sexual attacks in Cologne, Kurz stood firmly against his coalition partner, Austria’s then-chancellor Werner Faymann, and his German colleague Angela Merkel. Asked why he never went to greet refugees at the train station, he responded: “It’s the wrong signal to criminal smugglers that people who gave them that much money and made it across the Mediterranean are greeted with smiles” from European politicians, according to his recently published authorized biography by the German journalist Paul Ronzheimer. Then in 2016, at a conference in Vienna, the West Balkan countries decided to close their borders. Germany was not invited.
Germany did, however, strike a deal with Turkey to take back some migrants, and both deals have contributed to a long-term decline in migration into Europe—though they have not diminished migration’s potency as a political issue. Kurz’s “Balkan route” boast was his main talking point during the 2017 election campaign, and it helped his party end up in first place. Like France’s Emmanuel Macron, whose movement Kurz seemed to be trying to mimic, Kurz brought with him into government several political “newcomers.”