I won’t be voting in the Austrian election. In fact, I never have.
A few months ago, a media colleague asked if I had thought of entering politics. “In Austria?” I asked. “Yeah, I think you’d be good in politics.” He was surprised when I told him I was not an Austrian citizen. “Oh, I just assumed.”
Yeah, a lot of people do.
I came of age in Vienna and, along with my classmates, I went on every Skikurs, learned the Austrian national anthem, not to mention every syllable of the unofficial one, “I am From Austria,” by Reinhard Fendrich. I can say Oachkatzalschwoaf without stuttering or sounding like a Piefke, and when I’m really on a roll, I can totally raunz in Wienerisch.
So what makes a person Austrian? In essence, it’s a passport, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but every time someone asks me whom I’ll vote for, I feel like my nationality is a cop-out. I hate it that I can’t vote, as if I’m shirking responsibility for the fate of our nation.
We third country citizens who live and work in Austria and pay into the system – and have for a long time – have a strange relationship with Austrian policymakers. We pay taxes, social security and support the economy in many ways. We are affected by the outcome of this election – in some ways more than the Austrians themselves.
Here is a simplified selection of how each party’s policy proposals could affect non-Austrians. The sources for this information are from the parties’ own campaign programs.
The party stresses labor market improvements, economic rejuvenation and tax reform. It has seen a shift since Chancellor Christian Kern’s arrival to a strong focus on entrepreneurial initiatives and support for employers. One of their suggestions is reducing payroll taxes (Lohnnebenkosten). When it comes to integration, the SPÖ says that integration is a national responsibility. The party stresses compulsory school attendance for all and requires an integration year for asylum seekers as well as the need for cooperation with the EU when it comes to refugee policy. The party calls for a “fast-track system” for work visas in sectors with high employee demand (Mangelberufsfelder) and not taxing the first €1,500 of monthly income, and making that the new minimum monthly wage. The party has taken pains to find solutions for everyone and has no overt stance on immigration – except refugee integration policy, which is outlined in detail.
The traditionally conservative party has rebranded under Sebastian Kurz and has distinct views on employment, immigration and integration policy. They call for a cap on Mindestsicherung (a form of welfare providing a minimum income) at €1,500 per household, lowering that for people granted asylum to €560 per month. They want to make welfare a federal matter instead of leaving it to individual states and tighten regulations, as they fear welfare tourism within the EU. They also call for family subsidies (Familienbeihilfe) for children living outside Austria to be linked to the income levels of the country the child lives in. Similarly to the FPÖ, the party calls for welfare payments to commence only after five years of residence in Austria. In terms of refugee policy, the ÖVP calls for cuts or freezes to foreign aid to countries that won’t take rejected asylum seekers back.
The FPÖ differentiates between refugees and immigrants. They say no immigration measures should be offered to the former, as it can be assumed that asylum is only temporary. Immigrants are welcome, the party’s former presidential candidate Norbert Hofer told the press, as long as they are well-qualified. Social security benefits like Mindestsicherung would only become available after five years residence. Also the FPÖ, wants to restrict the percentage of foreigners per class in Austrian schools.
The NEOs stress the need to reduce bureaucracy and increase international cooperation, both on a European and a global level. They see themselves as the party of free enterprise and support innovation and entrepreneurial spirit as a motor for strengthening the economy. While they have no distinct stance on immigration, they stand against every form of discrimination, calling for equal rights (and obligations) regardless of religion, skin color, sex or sexual orientation.
While it is a given that the party’s main concern is improving environmental policy and general quality of life in Austria, the greens are also great proponents of LGBT rights, demanding the gender wage gap be closed through employment measures and modernization of collective bargaining agreements (Kollektivverträge). The party also has an initiative called “Stop The Right”, which toes a more overt left-wing party line. When it comes to immigration and integration the party has few concrete demands, however, they call for more transparent and fair immigration policy, affordable German courses and making citizenship more accessible.
This party is trying to break the mold by rejecting the idea of a classic party line or manifesto. Instead, individual party members have their own agendas. Alma Zadic calls for an integration ministry, better language courses for children and young people and calls for 200 specially-trained teachers for German as a foreign language in schools. She also says integration requires that institutions like the police force be strengthened with more staff with an international background.
My company employs four Austrians and three non-Austrians, who have all either studied or started a family here. We immigrants make up a big part of the entrepreneurial and self-employed population in Vienna. According to a 2014 study by the Arbeiterkammer, 30% of Vienna’s self-employed are immigrants.
Unlike EU citizens, as “third country citizens” we are not even allowed to vote on a municipal level, which I must say does make me question my agency in a society I’ve had the honor and privilege to be a part of most of my life.
It’s hard to understand why Austria makes it so difficult for permanent residents to take on the full responsibilities if citizenship without giving up our affiliation to our origins. In my opinion, it’s possible to have two cultural identities and have both of them be real.
I’ve decided not to let this faze me. We expats can influence public discourse and policy in many ways:
With our stories
As expats, we have a powerful voice in a sphere Austrians have little access to. Whether we talk about Austria and Austrian politics when we travel home or to other places – about business, politics, or social issues – we can strongly influence how the world sees Austria and indirectly, how Austria sees itself.
With our time
You see good things happening in your neighborhood or professional sector? Support them. Help them with graphic design for their campaign, help them formulate a press release, an open letter, or simply volunteer your time. A good friend of mine spends a few afternoons a week with a Syrian family who fled the terrors of Aleppo.
With our wallets
Choosing to buy locally and support brands and products you believe in. On a wider level, private donations can be made to political parties and their affiliates, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Hold a voter’s hand
On Sunday, go along with a friend to the voting booth. Oftentimes election campaigns can demoralize the most politically conscious of voters, so it can be a great help to have community support getting to the polls.
So what will I be doing this Sunday? Attending the 1st birthday party of one of Austria’s newest citizens, a hybrid American/Austrian. Presumably he’ll be able to vote in both countries in 17 years. Let’s hope we don’t ruin it for him in the mean time.
For more background on the Austrian elections, check out our special report here.
Have a happy Election Day and as always,
don’t be a stranger.