...Get In­volved in Pol­i­tics in Aus­tria

How do you make your voice heard in a coun­try that is not en­tirely your own?

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - CONTENTS - By An­drew Standen-raz

There are many ways for the ev­er­grow­ing in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to make its voice heard in a coun­try that is not en­tirely yours.

Pol­i­tics of­ten seems like a cross be­tween a te­len­ov­ela and a car crash – you’d like to ig­nore it, but can’t help tun­ing in to the next crazy episode. Grou­cho Marx called pol­i­tics “the art of look­ing for trou­ble, find­ing it ev­ery­where, di­ag­nos­ing it in­cor­rectly and ap­ply­ing the wrong reme­dies.” Aris­to­tle’s orig­i­nal def­i­ni­tion was sim­ply, man­ag­ing “the things con­cern­ing the po­lis,” the cities or bod­ies of cit­i­zens that formed Athe­nian so­ci­ety. It’s how we ap­proach pol­i­tics that counts. “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights,” sang Bob Mar­ley. But if you live in a for­eign coun­try – as an ex­pat, im­mi­grant or refugee – how do you make your voice heard? To para­phrase Ge­orge Or­well, some res­i­dents are more equal than oth­ers. Just as in fourth cen­tury B.C. Athens, po­lit­i­cal rights tend to fa­vor cit­i­zens. But Vienna’s pop­u­la­tion is chang­ing rapidly. Ac­cord­ing to the City of Vienna, “Fifty per­cent of the Vi­en­nese were born abroad or have at least one par­ent who was born abroad. Twenty-nine per­cent are non-aus­trian pass­port hold­ers.” Ever-younger im­mi­grants are mov­ing here and mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

PLAY­ING A PART

English­man Peter Berry, 26, was elected late last year as Stel­lvertre­tender Lan­desvor­sitzen­der (deputy re­gional chair­man) of Junos, the youth wing of the Aus­trian NEOS party, al­though he re­mains a Bri­tish cit­i­zen. Berry moved to Vienna for his lan­guage stud­ies in 2015.He had no par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in get­ting in­volved in lo­cal pol­i­tics un­til he as­sisted at the Fo­rum

“I turned up at a Junos event and dis­cov­ered that be­ing English was no fac­tor.” Peter Berry, deputy re­gional chair­man of the Junos, youth wing of the lib­eral NEOS party

Alp­bach, the Aus­trian-eu ver­sion of the Davos World Eco­nomic Fo­rum. “At the time, I thought, why would I get in­volved? I had no idea how long I’d be here in Aus­tria.” Like many ex­pats, the se­duc­tive Vi­en­nese qual­ity of life drew him to stay. “I turned up to a Junos event and dis­cov­ered that be­ing English was no fac­tor,” al­though, he adds, flu­ency in Ger­man was crit­i­cal. Even though he as­sumed his cur­rent role within two years of get­ting in­volved with the party, Berry re­mem­bers “it took a while to get past ‘I can’t run for of­fice so why bother?’” Al­most any­one in Vienna can, in fact, as­sist on cam­paigns or work in Par­lia­ment. “If you can work for a cloth­ing com­pany, you can work for a po­lit­i­cal party,” con­firms Aus­trian po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Gerd Valchars. It’s worth a try: When Berry stood for elec­tion as a Junos of­fi­cial, he had only one op­po­nent. Like many for­eign EU cit­i­zens who have made Vienna their home, Berry and I can’t vote in na­tional elec­tions or for the pres­i­dent, but thanks to the 1992 Maas­tricht Treaty, we can vote in the Bezirksv er tr etungsw ah len( district rep­re­sen­ta­tion elec­tions ). The plea­sure I ex­pe­ri­enced vot­ing for my lo­cal Bezirk­srat (district coun­cil) dur­ing the po­lar­ized 2016 Aus­trian pres­i­den­tial elec­tions made me feel even more Vi­en­nese: My voice, how­ever small, counted. Berry feels the same. “It’s im­por­tant to make a dif­fer­ence where I live. The po­lit­i­cal sys­tem im­pacts me just as any other cit­i­zen.” It's eas­ier these days for for­eign­ers to get po­lit­i­cally in­formed in Vienna. Na­tion­al­is­tic slo­gans flooded the 2017 elec­tion, but the Wir im Ersten (We in the 1st district) in­de­pen­dent party cam­paign - in sev­eral lan­guages - took a dif­fer­ent tack: it en­thu­si­as­ti­cally wel­comed EU cit­i­zens to vote in the Vienna district elec­tions to “add your in­ter­na­tional in­put and ex­pe­ri­ence to pre­serve and im­prove the cen­ter of Vienna.” Valchars, work­ing with the Aus­trian lawyer Joachim Stern, con­trib­uted a handy over­view of vot­ing rights in Aus­tria for EU and non-eu res­i­dents to the Euro­pean Union Democ­racy Ob­ser­va­tory's re­search project. EU laws are not set in stone. Some coun­tries al­low vot­ing for all res­i­dents from day one, oth­ers have a wait­ing pe­riod of one to five years, ac­cord­ing to com­par­i­son ta­bles of fran­chise rights in EU and non-eu coun­tries pro­duced by the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Aus­tria is at the re­stric­tive end. In 2002, the Spö-led Vienna Re­gional Par­lia­ment granted third coun­try na­tion­als vot­ing rights af­ter five years, but were over­turned in the Con­sti­tu­tional Court a year later, at the in­sis­tence of the rul­ing ÖVP (cen­ter-right) and FPÖ (far right) coali­tion. Pedes­trian zones, or smok­ing in cafes af­fect all Vi­en­nese. But if such is­sues were to be put to a ref­er­en­dum, or Volksab­stim­mung, only Aus­trian cit­i­zens could par­tic­i­pate – though none of the var­i­ous Aus­trian di­rect democ­racy in­stru­ments have the pol­icy im­pact of a vote such as that on Brexit in the United King­dom. EU ex­pats can also rep­re­sent Aus­tria as a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and even found a new party, but only an Aus­trian cit­i­zen could run for of­fice on that party’s plat­form. It re­ally does mat­ter who is in charge, and where you live. “There are EU reg­u­la­tions to in­form cit­i­zens of their rights, ”says Valchars, “but we can al­ways do more.”

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

For many, pol­i­tics is all about hit­ting the streets in an “I can’t be­lieve I’m still protest­ing this s**t” t-shirt and hand-knit­ted pussy ears. Ev­ery May 1, when tra­di­tion­ally So­cial­ist Vienna cel­e­brates the Day of the Worker, other groups, re­flect­ing Vienna’s rain­bow of com­mu­ni­ties, join the pro­ces­sion in sup­port of is­sues rang­ing from Gu­atemalan work­ers to women’s rights in Iran. The city’s vi­brant street protests can draw thou­sands to po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tions on Helden­platz or shut down Ringstrasse as bell-ring­ing bi­cy­clists de­mand more cy­cle paths. The Lichter­kette (chain of lights) is par­tic­u­larly Vi­en­nese –protesters car­ry­ing tiki lamps and can­dles, some­times sur­round­ing gov­ern­ment build­ings. “Look at the world around you,” urges jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Glad­well in his best­selling book, The Tip­ping Point. “It may seem like an im­mov­able, im­pla­ca­ble place. It is not. With the slight­est push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.” An ex­am­ple? Same-sex mar­riage will be le­gal in Aus­tria as of Jan­uary 2019, af­ter a decade long Con­sti­tu­tional Court bat­tle and a lot of Zivil­courage. For Berry, in­volve­ment in pol­i­tics even as an ex­pat is worth the ef­fort. “Pol­i­tics is a hobby I en­joy, a good way to meet peo­ple, and fun even around elec­tion time when it be­comes hard work.” Whether you’re stirred by supra-na­tional is­sues such as cli­mate change or lo­cal is­sues such as free kinder­gartens or an­i­mal rights, an evening do­ing some­thing about it can be far more re­ward­ing than click­ing an an­gry emoti­con.

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