Austria elected conservative 31-year old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz on Sunday as the country’s chancellor, making him Europe’s youngest head of state. He is also the only Western head of state born between 1982 and 2004, the age bracket many refer to as the millennial generation.
Kurz’s center-right People’s Party (OVP) defeated the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), which before Sunday had been the largest in the Austrian parliament, with 31.6 percent in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, SPÖ barely edged out the far-right, anti-immigrant, populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) for second place, 26.9 percent to 26 percent. The nine-tenths of a percent difference will only give the liberal SPÖ a two-seat advantage in parliament, 53 seats to FPÖ’s 51 seats. Kurz’s victory though will produce an overwhelming majority through a coalition of OVP conservatives and far-right FPÖ nationalists that is sure to swing Austria in an unconventionally rightward direction.
The FPÖ in recent years, like Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD), has gained traction among Austrian voters who have seen hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants enter their country on their way to Germany – many of them remaining in Austria. Concern over mass immigration has only heightened with the rise of multiple terrorist attacks in Western Europe over the past couple of years.
Surprisingly, it isn’t primarily the elderly who are pushing the conservative backlash in Europe.
“Somebody is finally doing something for us Austrians,” said a 19-year-old college student in a traditionally liberal, working-class stronghold of Vienna.
Another Vienna student in high school explained his reason for voting for FPÖ: “Out of 27 students in my class, only three are Austrians. … [T]his cannot go on.”
With Kurz attracting large numbers of millennial voters and taking a rightward turn on the issue of border security and immigration, his OVP took much of the wind out of the right-wing FPÖ’s sails.
Like many young millennials, Kurz originally viewed the European Union’s accepting of Middle Eastern refugees, most of whom were Muslim, favorably. In fact, what really set off his career was being appointed as Director of Integration in the Austrian Ministry of Interior at the age of 24 in 2011. He sought to fight Austria’s image in the world as unwelcoming to immigrants, and worked to help the newcomers fit into Austrian society with the motto “integration through action.”
As more than a million Middle Easterners flooded across Austria and Germany’s borders, however, Kurz’s perception of open borders and mass immigration changed drastically.
He began supporting limiting EU social benefits to migrants, securing Austria’s borders, and spoke out against the “dangers of mass migration.” He promoted legislation banning the foreign funding of mosques, as well as the burqa in public, saying “We want Austrian-style Islam, not one controlled by other states.”
In 2016, he convinced many Southeastern European countries to close their borders to migrants to stop the “Balkan route” that many Middle Easterners were taking to take advantage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy toward migrants. Many Austrian commentators credited Kurz’s change of heart as a “maturing” that occurred after he assumed the office of Foreign Minister.
Kurz’s election makes him currently the second millennial head of state. The other is 34-year old North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.