Sebastian Kurz is Austria’s 33-year-old chancellor. He’s also one of Europe’s most interesting political leaders. And as Austria takes its first steps towards exiting the COVID-19 lockdown, he’s putting himself out front again.
First, a backgrounder on Kurz.
With his youth, charisma and all-round media savvy, Kurz may superficially strike Canadians as an Austrian version of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Where Trudeau’s political orientation can be described as centre-left, Kurz is decidedly centre-right. And while Trudeau’s popular vote dropped by six points between his first and second elections, Kurz’s rose by six.
Kurz has also shown a deft capacity for political manoeuvring while remaining true to his core identity.
Austria’s system of proportional representation invariably produces coalition governments.
So when Kurz’s People’s Party topped the polls in the 2017 election, he formed a coalition with the third-place Freedom Party, whose agenda he’d significantly appropriated. To quote Austrian academic Anton Pelinka, “What’s particular to Austria is that the anti-immigration agenda of the far right has been taken over, in a civilized and genteel form, by a mainstream party.”
Then after winning with an increased vote share in 2019, he formed a coalition with the fourth-place Greens.
Perhaps, as a 2018 Spectator profile put it, Kurz has an ability to understand multiple points of view and seek out whatever common ground there might be. Or maybe he’s just a politically nimble guy who sees an opportunity and takes it.
Kurz’s attitude towards multiculturalism is a major distinguishing feature.
Whereas Trudeau lauds Canada as “the first post-national state,” that view finds no sympathetic echo in Kurz’s vision for Austria. He isn’t interested in a multicultural social transformation. Instead, Austria’s traditional national identity is to be preserved and protected.
If you come to Austria, you’re expected to learn German and integrate. Aspiring to join the Austrian tribe is okay, but seeking to establish your own tribe on Austrian territory isn’t.
Let’s turn now to COVID-19.
The Austrian state of Tyrol, which shares its southern border with Italy, became a significant transmission vector as a result of its status as a popular winter skiing destination. Infections in Iceland, Denmark, Germany and Norway have been traced back to there.
Beloved by tourists from all over, the resort village of Ischgl was a particular hot spot. It wasn’t the skiing on the Alpine slopes that did the trick, but rather the après-ski socializing in restaurants and bars. As one infected Dane expressed it to CNN, “Lots of people, lots of drinks, and nice waiters happy to serve you more.”
Initially, authorities were in denial. Tourism, after all, is immensely important to the region’s economy. Some 500,000 visitors flock there each winter.
But when the Austrians moved, they did so decisively.
Ischgl was put under lockdown on March 13 and the lockdown was extended nationwide on March 16. Face masks were made compulsory for store patrons starting on April 6 and on public transportation on April 14.
While not quite as good as Germany, Norway or Finland, Austria’s COVID-19 experience has been much better than that of most Western European countries.
As of April 14, its population-adjusted death rate (deaths per million) stands at 43.4. This compares with the likes of Spain (386.4), Belgium (363.9), Italy (348.6) and France (234.8). Even neighbouring Switzerland is posting a death rate of 137.8.
Austria’s lockdown exit strategy was articulated by Kurz last week. Kicking in on April 14, the emphasis is on gradualism. It’s a question of seeing how you go and adjusting accordingly.
Hardware stores, garden centres and small shops are the first to be allowed to reopen, subject to maintaining a degree of social distancing and wearing face masks.
If things go well – meaning no appreciable increase in new infections – larger stores, shopping centres and hairdressers will follow at the beginning of May. Then restaurants and hotels would come back on stream around the middle of the month.
Recognizing the devastating social consequences of allowing the lockdown to go on indefinitely, Austria has opted to gingerly move forward. It’s all about risk management and intelligent trade-offs.
Austria isn’t quite alone in this. Denmark, for instance, is also taking first steps, as are Norway and the Czech Republic.
North Americans need to pay close attention and wish them well. Hopefully, they’ll light a path we can follow.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.