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Austrian poised to become Europe’s 1st millennial leader

October 16, 2017

VIENNA (AP) — At age 31, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz is poised to become the first millennial to lead a European country following his party’s victory in a national election Sunday. While no party won a majority, the telegenic Kurz is most likely to be sworn in as Austria’s next chancellor — and Europe’s youngest leader — after the tough coalition government negotiations that lie ahead.

Near-final results from Sunday’s balloting put his People’s Party comfortably in first place, with 31.4 percent of the vote. The right-wing Freedom Party came in second with 27.4 percent. The center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria, which now governs in coalition with People’s Party, got 26.7 percent.

Becoming head of government would be the next leap in a political career that started eight years ago when Kurz, then studying law, was elected chairman of his party’s youth branch. Smart and articulate, he eventually caught the eye of People’s Party elders. He was appointed state secretary for integration, overseeing government efforts to make immigrants into Austrians, in 2011.

After a Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition was formed four years ago, Kurz, then 27, became Austria’s foreign minister — the youngest top diplomat in Europe. He hosted several rounds of talks between Iran and six other countries on Tehran’s nuclear program, meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other powerbrokers. Other international events further boosted his visibility and party influence.

When a new wave of migrants and refugees seeking to relocate to Europe became a continent-wide concern in 2015, Kurz recognized Austrian voters’ anxiety over unchecked immigration involving large numbers of Muslim newcomers.

He called for tougher external border controls, better integration and stringent control of “political Islam” funded from abroad. He also organized the shutdown of the popular overland route through the West Balkans many newcomers were using to reach the EU’s prosperous heartland.

By now, Kurz and his traditionally centrist party had drifted considerably to the right of their Social Democratic government partners, making governing difficult. Kurz’s moment came when both agreed this spring to an early national election.

The People’s Party, then lagging in third place and long seen as a stodgy old boys network, made him leader. Kurz set out to reinvent the party’s image after securing guarantees for unprecedented authority.

The youthful, Vienna-born politician turned out to be the tonic the party needed, helping it shrug off criticism that it’s been part of the political establishment for decades. He mostly goes without a tie, works standing behind a desk and flies economy class. He has a girlfriend, but is private about his life outside politics.

Noting that his center-right party had triumphed over the rival Social Democrats only twice since the end of World War II, Kurz called Sunday’s election a “historic victory.”

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Election produces likely right turn, young leader in Austria

October 15, 2017

VIENNA (AP) — Austria’s 31-year-old foreign minister declared victory for his party Sunday in a national election that set him up to become Europe’s youngest leader and puts the country on course for a rightward turn.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz claimed the win as final results announced by the Interior Ministry showed his People’s Party had a comfortable lead with almost all the ballots counted. Noting that his center-right party had triumphed over the rival Social Democrats only twice since the end of World War II, Kurz called it a “historic victory.”

“Today is not the day of triumph over others, but today is our chance for real change in this country,” he told cheering supporters. Still to be counted are more than 800,000 absentee ballots and ones cast by voters outside of their home districts. The outstanding votes are due to be tallied by mid-week.

However, the votes counted so far show that Austria, where moderate policies have been the norm for decades, will have a government with a harder line on migration and Muslims than one running the country now.

Both Kurz’s party and the right-wing Freedom Party — Kurz’s most likely government coalition partner — campaigned on the need for tougher immigration controls, quickly deporting asylum-seekers whose requests are denied and cracking down on radical Islam.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said the People’s Party received 31.4 percent of the vote, a gain of more than 7 percentage points from the 2013 election. Kurz described that as the biggest jump in support in the party’s history.

The Social Democratic Party of Austria, which now governs in coalition with People’s Party, had 26.7 percent, while the Freedom Party had 27.4 percent. The election returns suggest a harder line on immigration resonated with voters more strongly than Social Democratic calls for social equality. Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern acknowledged as much, saying Sunday’s results reflected “a push to the right.”

The Social Democrats were also hurt by charges of dirty campaigning after Israeli political adviser Tal Silberstein, while under contract to the party, launched Facebook platforms crudely mocking Kurz and suggesting the young foreign minister was anti-Semitic.

Much of the People’s Party’s appeal has been credited to Kurz. Since taking the helm in the spring amid growing strains within the governing Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition, he moved his center-right party further to the right.

Even though he is part of the present government, Kurz also presented himself as an engine of change for voters disenchanted with the political status quo. But he avoids the inflammatory rhetoric of the Freedom Party and its head, Heinz-Christian Strache. That made Kurz’s party appealing to voters who were uncomfortable with the Freedom Party, but increasingly concerned about immigration since 2015, when hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim migrants flowed into and through Austria in search of better lives in prosperous European Union nations

Strache has modified the tone of his message when speaking to the broader public. The party is keen on shedding its past links to anti-Semitism, but continues to attract a small neo-Nazi fringe. The last time the Freedom Party was in government was 17 years ago. While no expects a repeat of the EU sanctions slapped on Austria because of the party’s participation, critics of the Freedom Party in and outside Austria have expressed alarm at any government role for the euroskeptic party.

President Alexander Van der Bellen, who must swear in the new government, said he “puts great value on pro-European government.” He narrowly defeated a Freedom Party candidate in last year’s election for head of state.

With the pro-EU Kurz at the helm, “EU membership is not likely to be questioned,” analyst Pepijn Bergsen, of the Economist Intelligence Unit said. Among the greatest losers were Austria’s Greens, with projections showing the party short of the 4 percent support needed to make it into parliament.

The environmentalist party, which had 12.42 percent in elections four years ago, was showing now at 3.9 percent. Two other small parties, the liberal NEOS and the Liste Pilz led by a renegade former Greens politician, just cleared the threshold for parliament seats.

Austria’s national vote Sunday: Questions and answers

October 13, 2017

VIENNA (AP) — Austrians will elect a new government Sunday after a campaign that has seen conflicting messages — two major parties have focused on concerns about immigrants and radical Islam while the third has highlighted the need to help the disadvantaged.

With polls indicating the next Austrian government could shift to the right, here are some questions and answers about the election and why it’s significant beyond Austria’s border.

WHY NOW — AND WHO ARE THE MAIN CONTENDERS?

Sunday’s vote is coming a year ahead of schedule after squabbles lead to the breakup last spring of the coalition government of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party. A total of 16 parties are vying for 183 seats in the national parliament and will be chosen by Austria’s 6.4 million eligible voters.

The People’s Party, which has shifted from centrist to right-wing positions, is leading in the pre-vote polls. Austria’s traditionally right-wing and anti-migrant Freedom Party is second and the center-left Social Democrats are trailing in third place. Others that may clear the 4 percent hurdle needed to get into parliament are the Greens, the liberal NEOS, and Liste Pilz, led by former Greens politician Peter Pilz.

WHAT’S BEHIND AUSTRIA’S RIGHTWARD DRIFT?

In a word— migrants. The 2015 influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria and poverty elsewhere into the EU’s prosperous heartland left Austria with nearly 100,000 new and mostly Muslim migrants. That has fueled fears Austria’s traditional Western and Christian culture is in danger. As a result, voters are receptive to the anti-migrant platforms of both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party.

Although the Social Democrats have come either first or second in elections since World War II, voters are not receptive right now to the party’s focus on social justice.

WHY IS THE PEOPLE’S PARTY AHEAD OF THE FREEDOM PARTY?

While their anti-migrant message is similar, the delivery differs. The Freedom Party has long used inflammatory and negative terminology in describing migrants in general and Muslims in particular. While it has publicly dissociated itself from decades of covert anti-Semitism, it continues to attract the neo-Nazi fringe. The People’s Party in contrast, has no tradition of anti-Semitism and speaks of the perceived need to crack down on illegal migration and radical Islam in more measured terms. That makes it attractive to voters concerned about migrants and Muslims but who reject the racist and xenophobic sentiment many associate with the Freedom Party.

HOW HAS THE PEOPLE’S PARTY REINVENTED ITSELF?

As the government coalition was unraveling, the People’s Party appointed Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz as its head, and the telegenic 31-year old set about to reinvent the party’s image.

Long criticized as a stodgy old-boys network, the party under Kurz now sells itself as a fresh wind in the political landscape. It shrugs off criticism that it was part of the political establishment for decades — and that it has coopted Freedom Party positions on immigration that it has long opposed.

As Kurz’s star waxes, Chancellor Christian Kern’s is waning. The former head of Austria’s state railway has seen his message as the bringer of change usurped by Kurz.

POST-VOTE SCENARIOS AND WHAT THAT MEANS FOR EUROPE

Polls suggest the People’s Party will win Sunday’s vote and the Freedom Party will come in second. With Kern saying the Social Democrats will go into the opposition if they do not win and a handful of other parties struggling to just get into parliament, the most likely scenario is a People’s Party-Freedom Party coalition. But others are possible, depending on the results.

No one expects the European Union to impose sanctions on Austria like it did the last time the Freedom Party entered government in 2000. Still, because the party encourages euroskeptic and anti-immigrant sentiment, many would view its move into government as renewed evidence of right-wing political sentiment in Europe.

Austria’s ‘Burqa Ban’ law comes into force

October 01, 2017

VIENNA (AP) — A law that forbids any kind of full-face covering, including Islamic veils such as the niqab or burqa, has come into force in Austria. Starting Sunday, wearing a ski mask off the slopes, a surgical mask outside hospitals and party masks in public is prohibited.

The law, popularly known as the “Burqa Ban,” is mostly seen as a directed at the dress worn by some ultra-conservative Muslim women. Violations carry a possible fine of 150 euros (nearly $180.) Police are authorized to use force if people resist showing their faces.

Only a small number of Muslim women in Austria wear full-face veils, but they have become a target for right-wing groups and political parties. France and Belgium have similar laws. The nationalist Alternative for Germany party is calling for one there, too.

‘Burqa ban’ law signals rightward political turn in Austria

September 30, 2017

VIENNA (AP) — A law prohibiting any kind of full-face covering, known popularly as the “Burqa Ban,” takes effect Sunday in Austria, where the strong support for it portends potential political upheaval in the upcoming national election.

Parties campaigning on an anti-migrant message are poised to win on Oct. 15 and to form a coalition government. Such a rightward swing in a country that’s had centrist governments almost consistently since World War II could have repercussions across Europe, emboldening politicians who take a hard line on Islam and immigration.

Last week, the right-wing, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party won seats in Germany’s national parliament for the first time after featuring posters with the slogan “Burqas? We prefer bikinis” in its campaign.

The Austrian law — called “Prohibition for the Covering of the Face” — forbids off-slope ski masks, surgical masks outside hospitals and party masks in public. Violations carry a possible fine of 150 euros (nearly $180) and police are authorized to use force with people who resist showing their faces.

But its popular name reflects the most prevalent association — the garments some Muslim women wear to conceal their whole faces and bodies. The garments are rare in Austria even after the recent surge of migrants into Europe. Support for the law is strong nonetheless, reflecting anti-Muslim attitudes in the predominantly Catholic country.

“It’s not right that those living here don’t show their faces,” said Emma Schwaiger, who expressed support for the ban in a straw poll on the streets of Vienna. Five in seven of those who said they backed the law also said they will vote for the two parties that critics link to anti-Muslim sentiment — the traditionally xenophobic Freedom Party and the People’s Party. The People’s Party avoids the Freedom Party’s inflammatory talk, but has swung radically from the center under new leader Sebastian Kurz to echo that party’s positions on migration.

The Social Democratic Party, currently the majority partner in the government coalition with the People’s Party, has been left struggling. Under Chancellor Christian Kern, the Social Democrats are focusing on social topics and claiming credit for Austria’s recent economic upturn. But Kern’s message is not coming across well.

A Unique Research poll of 1,500 respondents published Thursday showed the Social Democrats with 27 percent support, ahead of the Freedom Party at 25 percent but trailing the People’s Party with 34 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Previously associated with stagnation and lack of direction, the People’s Party was trailing in third place until Kurz, Austria’s telegenic 31-year old foreign minister, took leadership in May after securing party pledges of full authority.

He already was known Europe-wide for shutting down the West Balkans route into the prosperous EU heartland for migrants. With early elections set after the breakup of the coalition with the Social Democrats, he rapidly remade the party in his own image.

Although the People’s Party was part of the government coalition that opened its borders to more than 100,000 migrants in 2015, the party now says that “the political establishment failed in dealing with the refugee crisis.”

Calling for zero illegal immigration, he says migrants intercepted on the high seas should be shipped to refugee centers in North Africa instead of Europe. Migrants waiting for a decision on their asylum applications should be forced to work menial jobs in exchange for pocket money. And instead of the normal six-year waiting period for Austrian citizenship, those receiving asylum should wait for 10 years, he says.

Kurz has something else in his favor for an electorate disaffected with the status quo. “He was able — even though he was in government for more than six years — to present himself as the ‘change guy,'” said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst.

He now campaigns as the head of “Sebastian Kurz List.” Posters with his image mention the People’s Party as an afterthought. Turquoise has replaced the party’s official color of black. Kurz also attracts Austrians who support the Freedom Party and its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, on migration, but dislike the radical way they frame the debate. Kurz, says Hofer, “uses a different kind of language, and it’s not extreme language — it’s plain talk.”

Kurz has pledged that the face-cover ban will be rigorously enforced. But Hofer dismisses the law as a “symbolic issue.” Muslim women leaders see as insincere the claim the law is intended to help oppressed women.

Carla Amina Bhagajati of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria said the “handful” of fully veiled women she knows of in Vienna “now are criminalized and … restricted to their homes.” “This open society is, in a hypocritical way, endangering its own values,” she said.

Austrian party picks new leader, early elections likely

May 14, 2017

VIENNA (AP) — Austria’s junior government coalition partner chose a new leader Sunday and gave him the unprecedented authority he demanded as a condition for leading his party into expected early elections this fall.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told reporters that senior officials of his People’s Party agreed to let him choose all ministers of any government he would head, as well as to nominate candidates for parliament that would include party outsiders.

Speaking after a closed meeting, Kurz said that the gathering also agreed to contest at least the next elections under a name change. Instead of the People’s Party, Kurz and other candidates would now run under the “List Sebastian Kurz – the new People’s Party.”

“We have decided to start a movement,” Kurz told reporters. “We’re going to rely on proven forces from within the People’s Party, but at the same time we’re going to bring new people on board.” The power grab is significant in a party where provincial governors have historically had an outsize say in running federal affairs, including pushing through ministerial appointments and overriding major policy decisions by the federal leader.

With few exceptions, that has led party heads to resign in frustration in recent decades. The latest, Reinhold Mitterlehner, threw in the towel Wednesday after less than three years as party leader and vice chancellor.

The center-right People’s Party is now a distant third among voters. But Kurz, a telegenic 30-year old, regularly tops political popularity polls. That is due in part for his embrace of a harder line on immigrants and other positions of the right-wing Freedom Party, which leads in voter support. But he avoids that party’s xenophobic polemics, as he walks the line between keeping People’s Party supporters and attracting Freedom Party backers.

Acceptance of Kurz’s demands reflects recognition by the party’s power-brokers that refusal would mean an almost certain slide in voter support. The often cantankerous People’s Party-Social Democratic coalition has shown increased signs of fraying over the past months. Still, Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern had resisted People’s Party calls to move up elections from next year.

But as People’s Party officials gathered Sunday he told state broadcaster ORF: “I assume that there will certainly be an election this fall.”

Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin, and AP video journalist Philipp Jenne in Vienna, contributed to this report.

Lack of German means Turk must vacate Austrian kebab stand

April 03, 2017

WIENER NEUSTADT, Austria (AP) — Alihan Turgut has dished out falafel for more than a decade to the townsfolk of Wiener Neustadt, and many call him one of their own. But “Kebab Ali” now stands to lose his stand at the main marketplace — and with it his livelihood.

Turgut is paying the price for something that he says has not previously been a problem: his German remains rough at best, more than 25 years after he came to Austria from Turkey. Mayor Klaus Schneeberger says that makes him someone “we don’t need” in what will soon be the refurbished market area.

Local politicians have seized on Turgut’s lack of German in denying him a stand and banning him from setting up anywhere else in the downtown district of their city south of Vienna. Turgut belongs to an earlier group of “guest workers” and subsequent generations who arrived well before the unprecedented migrant waves that Europe now is wrestling with. They initially were expected to return home after doing the menial work that the citizens of economically growing Western Europe considered below them.

After arriving in Austria, Germany, or elsewhere, many “guest workers” decided to stay. But they, and those who trickled in over subsequent decades, were mostly on their own as far as integration is concerned, without the language lessons, courses on socially acceptable behavior and job training that EU nations are offering their new arrivals nowadays.

At a time of EU-Turkish tensions, town fathers are depicting Turgut as a poster boy of a “parallel society,” loyal to Ankara, that sometimes resorts to violence on Europe’s streets in support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his drive for greater powers.

In part as a reaction, the government is tightening rules on demonstrations, while Austrian news and public affairs programs reflect growing concerns about where loyalties lie. A much-watched TV talk show last week was titled “Austro-Turks for Erdogan: Does the new homeland not count for anything?”

But Turgut appears more a political football than part of a fifth column. A white apron spanned over his expansive belly, he trades quips in mangled but understandable German with customers lined up for a schnitzelburger or a kebab.

He acknowledges that he remains a Turkish citizen but says it’s only because his German isn’t good enough to pass strict Austrian citizenship tests. He describes his priorities on arrival as bringing his family to Austria and establishing a livelihood, not learning German.

In any case, he says, the focus on language is a “political game,” adding in fractured German: “My customers want me to stay downtown.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged that people like Turgut and others before him didn’t have the integration opportunities of today’s migrants. She say officials back then “pushed a book in their hands titled ‘German for Foreigners’ and said: ‘OK, that should work.'”

In terms of adapting,” they were simply thrown in cold water,” she said two years ago, in comments marking the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the first “guest workers.” Along with Turks, workers from Yugoslavia made up the bulk of the earlier migrant arrivals that lasted into the 1980s. But while both groups had to struggle to escape the traps of poor education, menial jobs and lack of German, the Turks faced additional hurdles.

Migration and assimilation researcher Kenan Guengoer says that most “brought with them a special feeling of being foreign” in a Christian Europe because of their Muslim roots. “Even today, the children and grandchildren of that generation don’t have the feeling that they have arrived,” said Guengoer, adding that — for many — this explains their affinity to Turkey, even if born in Austria.

An Austrian government study from last year says 51.8 percent of first- and second- generation Turks feel at home more in Turkey than in Austria. Erdogan, Guengoer said, “gives them the feeling of being someone, of being able to look up to a charismatic leader, of being part of a country they can call their own.”

Schneeberger, the mayor, acknowledges past mistakes and points to present integration efforts as proof that Austria has learned from them. He praises Syrians as “progressive, ready to adapt,” and says the problem is “not the Turks, it’s some of the Turks.”

He invokes examples of Wiener Neustadt school classes where the majority of children speak Turkish with each other, adding: “If this is the case with children, what will our society look like tomorrow?”

“I am ready to praise those who integrate,” he says. “Others who don’t must be sent home.” He describes as “grotesque” the views of those who refuse to send their children to schools with a high percentage of migrants while saying “Herr Ali has to stay.”

But Turgut’s clients remain loyal. Frederike Steiner calls him “a traditional part of Wiener Neustadt.” Ella Raunig says he is “part of the city.” And Gabriella Jacob, who runs the vegetable stand next to Turgut, describes him as “part of us.”

“We will all miss him.”

Associated Press writer David Rising contributed from Berlin

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