Edith Meinhart – Locked Out

1.2 million people living in Austria do not have the right to vote. What does this mean for them? And what does it mean for the future of democracy in Austria?

Edith Meinhart is a staff writer at profil in Vienna

Cross-posted from profil

Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

Die meistgesuchten Fragen zur Nationalratswahl 2019

Khuseyn Iskhanov, 63, was a politician and sat in parliament in Grozny until the second Russian-Chechen war. 15 years ago he fled to Austria with his wife and six children. He finds it disturbing that he is still not allowed to vote in his new country. “Without a political voice I feel homeless,” he says.

Michael Carli, 54, was born in Innsbruck, deals in Sardinian food and is the representative of the Green Economy Tyrol. His mother and sister are both Italian and Austrian citizens. He, on the other hand, has – thanks to a legal volte-face of history – a single nationality, namely an Italian passport. When Austria elects a parliament, he has no right to vote.

Nobert Scheele, 56, is responsible for the Austrian business of the textile group C&A and has been living in Austria – with interruptions – for 30 years now. His children were born in Vienna, but inherited German passports from their parents. Should Scheele once again work in Switzerland for a while or one of his children goes for a semester abroad, a ten-year waiting period for naturalisation starts all over again. Until his children are allowed to vote for the first time in their country of birth, they will be in their mid-30s. Scheele doesn’t accept that: “I want my boys to be mobile, and they are being punished for this.”

Ishkanov, Carli, and Scheele mark different positions on a scale of political exclusion. Austria-wide 1.2 million people of voting age do not vote in elections for the national parliament. That would not be worth mentioning if they had only been in the country for a short time. But four out of ten of these have lived here for more than ten years – or were even born here, like Scheele’s children. The army of the excluded is now as numerous as the voters of the three Austrian states Tyrol, Vorarlberg and Burgenland put together.

Last week, the human rights organization SOS Mitmensch set up ballot boxes in several cities for a “Never Mind Your Passport” election. The action was supposed to point out a democratic-political absurdity: While the population is constantly growing, the electorate is shrinking – especially in the cities. Vienna is a booming city with as many people as Niederösterreich (Lower Austria). Nevertheless, Lower Austria still has more voters, because in Vienna 30 percent of the population over the age of 16 are kept away from national elections due to their lack of citizenship.

The consequences are serious. For example, the 183 seats in parliament are distributed among the federal states according to a certain key. Gerd Valchars – a political scientist with a focus on migration – calculated what the Austrian parliament would look like when all those who live permanently in Austria would have the right to vote: “Vienna would have six more seats, Lower Austria three less”. Tamara Ehs, who researches the problem zones of democracy for the University of Vienna, says that cities tend to vote left, green, and liberal, more than the rural parts of
Austria, so election results are also systematically distorted. Whoever is subject to the laws of a state should also be allowed to participate in their creation. This was the view of Hans Kelsen, one of the fathers of the Austrian constitution. Young people are increasingly affected by the problem. Of more than 9000 people aged between 16 and 24 live in the 15th district of Vienna, the district with the highest proportion of foreigners, almost half of whom do not have Austrian citizenship. This does not bode well for the future of the political system.

In addition, there is an alarming social imbalance. In countries like Austria, where parties are strongly financed by the public purse, political equality appeared to be an absolute priority. But two years ago the German academics Lea Elsässer, Svenja Hense, and Armin Schäfer documented in an elaborate study that in Germany’s parliament the rich and the poor, especially in foreign policy, economic and social issues, not only have quite different views, but are also heard differently in the German Bundestag – the rich have a strong voice, the poor none at all. Martina Zandonella of the Sora Institute in Vienna says that the findings have been a wake up call: “Suddenly the idea of political equality, and thus nothing less than the core of democracy, is being questioned.”

In Austria, a comparable survey is still pending. However, similar results could be expected. In Vienna today almost half of the inhabitants are no longer represented in their state parliament, either because they are not allowed to vote or because they turn their backs on politics. But who stays at home on election Sunday? Political scientist Ehs investigated the question for Vienna. Conclusion: People who have been unemployed for a long time, who have little education, who earn little, are also less likely to vote. Politicians, however, listen steadily to a certain clientele. This in turn discourages voters who already believe that they are governed by an elite that looks after itself first and foremost. Where few go to vote, fewer election posters are hung up; political frustration increases, voter turnout continues to fall: “In the end, only those who are economically better off are served by the political system,” explains Ehs.

Naturalisation counteracts political exclusion. Austria, however, is a particularly tough place for prospective citizens. In 2005, an amendment to the law reduced the number of naturalisations to below 0.7 per cent. “Of 150 inhabitants without an Austrian passport only one will be naturalized,” says Alexander Pollak of SOS Mitmensch. Many people – such as 63-year-old Ishkanov – fail with their application simply because they do not earn enough. Fearing that new Austrians could become a burden for the state, the financial hurdles were raised so high that 60 percent of the local workers and 40 percent of the pensioners receiving the minimum pension must consider themselves lucky to already have an Austrian passport; they would no longer receive one today.

Carli, on the other hand, could afford the costs for his naturalization, but when he was interested in it years ago, he was told by the responsible authority that “you barely passed the examination in German, but not in history”. Carli had graduated in history and felt as if he was being “taken for a ride”. Following that experience he had written off the subject of citizenship.

We encountered Djeina (name changed), 15, in front of the “”Never Mind Your Passport” election tent on the Minoritenplatz in Vienna. She is currently attending her first year at a commercial academy in Vienna. The day before, in an event in the library of her school, representatives of all parties promoted the political involvement of young people. The Chechen herself is still too young to vote this time; next time she will will be disqualified due to her lack of citizenship. Djeina was two when she came to Austria. It is “a pity” that the Liberals (FPÖ) and Conservatives ÖVP claim that “foreigners can’t get their act together”, she says: “Then why are there so many shops owned and run by Turks and Chinese? Timur, 17, also has Chechen roots, but was born in Austria. Here he wants to “make it big”, he says. Anyone can make it, if he has “ideas in his head” and attends a start-up school. In his class he is the only one who was not allowed to vote on Sunday. He had seen some TV duels and would have liked to cast a ballot. His application for naturalization had been submitted, he had heard nothing from the authorities since then: “I’m afraid of being deported. You never know how things will develop in this country.

Among 84,000 Viennese with an Austrian birthplace and a non-Austrian passport, there are many children who are only coming of voting age. Ilkim Erdost is Managing Director of the Vienna Youth Centres. With workshops and youth parliaments she works against exclusion and gets to hear more and more from 16-year-old boys and girls: “Why should I join in? I don’t count anyway”. The problem could be solved in many ways. One could – as in New Zealand – decouple voting rights and citizenship. Election results like the recent “”Never Mind Your Passport” ballot should not be feared in the long run. Here every second of the almost 3000 participants voted for the Greens; the SPÖ received 27.5 percent, while the ÖVP and FPÖ did not even make it into parliament. Studies show that migrants and majority populations vote more and more similarly over time. But naturalisation could also be made easier. The problem will not be solved by doing nothing. Every year that passes, the number of excluded people in relation to the total number of voters grows by one percentage point.

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