How do you make your voice heard in a country that is not entirely your own?
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 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.”
“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
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 Bezirksvertretungswahlen (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.