The world’s youngest leader wins in Austria

Young gun: Kurz has been called "the dream son-in-law for middle-class Austrian women". © Getty

What is the ideal age for a political leader? After triumphing in yesterday’s election in Austria, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz is set to become the youngest national leader in the world…

A youthful figure climbs up a mountain to a soundtrack of ambient electro. From the summit he surveys the land beneath him, determination in his eyes. The video is a campaign advert by the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The man is its leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz.

After his party won the most seats in yesterday’s election, Kurz is set to lead Austria as its youngest ever chancellor. The campaign, beset by scandal and marked by the prominence of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), was the most memorable in generations. Yet nothing was more remarkable than the meteoric rise of Kurz, nicknamed “the whizz kid”.

Despite his tender age, the kid is politically experienced. He became chairman of the ÖVP’s youth branch in 2009, energising it by organising bike rides and pub nights. At 27 he was made foreign minister. He started to talk tough on minorities, especially Muslims, and helped to stem the large flow of asylum seekers into Austria.

Immigration is a pressing issue in Austria. Experts put Kurz’s success yesterday down to his combination of hardline policies and energetic charisma. His young face adorned campaign posters; he renamed the ÖVP the New People’s Party and changed its official colour from black to turquoise. This fresh approach won him support among young and old alike.

Kurz’s age is not unprecedented in politics. Revolutionary leaders are often young, and some monarchs ascend the throne in their childhood – Alfonso XIII became king of Spain on the day he was born.

However, it is very rare for someone as young as Kurz to be democratically elected to lead a country. Indeed, Emmanuel Macron was considered unusually young when he was appointed as France’s president at 39.

And while, broadly speaking, Western leaders have become younger over the decades, in some countries the trend is reversing. The UK’s party leaders are the oldest in generations. In last year’s presidential election, Americans chose between two candidates past retirement age.

Is youth really an asset in a leader?

Whizz-dom

“Of course,” say some. Young people are more creative than their elders, and quicker to adapt to change. They are also more in tune with young voters, who are all too often ignored in politics. What with recent immigration, Austria is evolving fast. It takes a dynamic young person like Kurz to lead the country at this time.

“Perhaps,” reply others, “but youth has flaws of its own.” Kurz is not that experienced in managing an organisation. Nor does he have the gravitas needed to be taken seriously on the world stage. And at 31, he lacks the worldly wisdom that comes with age. He can run a good campaign, but he is too young to govern.

You Decide

  1. What is the ideal age at which to lead a country?
  2. Can a young politician understand old voters, and vice versa?

Activities

  1. Write down a list of things you want to have achieved by the time you are 31.
  2. As a class, note down what you like and dislike about your country’s leader. Then discuss: how much does their age have to do with their strengths and weaknesses?

Some People Say...

“Youth has no age.”

— Pablo Picasso

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Kurz’s ÖVP won a projected 31.7% of the vote. The ruling centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) came second with 27.0%, followed by the far-right FPÖ with 25.9%. In Austria, the largest party generally has to form a coalition with others to govern; this is Kurz’s job now, and it can take months of careful negotiation. He promised “to create a new political culture”.
What do we not know?
Who will be in that coalition. The SPÖ came second and governed alongside the ÖVP until now, but the the two parties have fallen out spectacularly. Many are expecting Kurz to approach the FPÖ, which was founded by former Nazis and remains very divisive today. An ÖVP-FPÖ alliance could pressure the European Union to adopt stricter rules on immigration. Overall, though, Kurz is not a Eurosceptic.

Word Watch

Scandal
A few weeks before the election, it emerged that the ruling Social Democrats were behind racist online adverts targeting Kurz. The scandal deepened when one of the people responsible for the adverts claimed that Kurz’s ÖVP had tried to recruit him. The ÖVP denies this.
The whizz kid
His nickname in the Austrian media, “wunderwuzzi”, literally means “a multi-talented person”.
Asylum seekers
At the peak of the migrant crisis, Austria – a country of less than 9m – took in around 100,000 asylum seekers in a year. This led to a popular backlash, and the government soon introduced tough measures on immigration and asylum claims.
Young
According to pre-election polls, the ÖVP was the most popular party even among 14- to 29-year-olds. The voting age in Austria is 16.
The day he was born
Alfonso XIII may not even be the youngest ruler in history: according to legend, Persia’s Shah Shapur II was crowned while still in the womb!
Emmanuel Macron
Like Macron, Kurz has successfully portrayed himself as an outsider despite coming from a fully “establishment” background.

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