Let the People Vote!

In Austria, every 5th person over 16 cannot vote, in Vienna, every 3rd. For democracy to flourish, we need to make these voices heard.

Austria is a nation of immigrants. Today, 1.7 million people living here were born abroad – that’s every 5th person (19.4%). This puts our country at the very top of the most open nations in Europe – among countries with more than a million inhabitants, only Switzerland has a higher share of international citizens (28.9%). Even diverse societies like Sweden (19.1%), Germany (17.9%), the UK (14.2%) or Italy (10.4%) have fewer than Austria. 

It is an astonishing change for a country that, as late as the 1980s, was seen as a parochial Hinterland in a then half-forgotten corner just inside the Iron Curtain – and seemed quite happy with that. Of course, the truth was different: For centuries, the people of today’s Austria all had their Bohemian grandparents, Hungarian aunts, Slovenian mothers or Italian cousins. But, for most of the postwar years, Austria seemed determined not to make a big deal out of it. After all, we lived on the “island of the blessed,” as Pope Paul VI, and later Bruno Kreisky, liked to call the country in the 1970s. 

Fast forward to 1989. The opening of Eastern Europe catapulted Austria – and particularly Vienna, that 1970s city planners dubbed this “dying city” – into the epicenter of a soon-to-be reunited continent. In a little less than 20 years, the number of resident foreigners living in Austria doubled from 730,000 in 2002 (9% of the population) to almost 1.5 million in 2020 (16.7% of the population). 

(C) Wiener Jugendzentren

Migration Nation, Baby! 

Today, a quarter of Austria’s population has what bureaucrats somewhat clumsily call a Migrationshintergrund (migration background), meaning that either they themselves or one of their parents was born abroad. This number increased by 35% since 2010.

This trend long pre-dates the influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2015; the 10-country Eastern Enlargement of the EU in 2004 – the Osterweiterung – and the addition of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 put Austria back at the heart of the continent, fueled by newly-opened borders.

Since then, the population of Vienna alone has grown by some 330,000, with 2/3 of this growth well before 2015. The reality of this has everything to do with the health of our democracy: As of early 2020, a whopping 45% of the Viennese population had a “migration background”. 

This is nearly half the city’s population. Out of these, 36% were themselves born abroad; more importantly, 31% of Viennese are foreign citizens, which – in almost all cases – means they cannot vote. Dual citizenship is – with rare exceptions – only for the children of mixed nationality families and honorary citizens.

Additionally, the naturalization rate in Austria has remained very low: Only about 0.8% of foreign residents obtain Austrian citizenship annually.

The number bears repeating: Over 30% of the Viennese are unable to vote.

Who Decides?

This has particularly alarmed the Association of Youth Centers in Vienna, which has lobbied for change since the municipal elections in 2015. “We need reform urgently,”said director Ilkim Erdost, who is campaigning to ease the naturalization process, broaden voting rights or develop a concept of “urban citizenship” detached from residency status. 

Their campaign #Wien30 wants to raise awareness for the 30% of Viennese who cannot vote, on their website as well as on social media and in the associations centers.

The deeper problem is one of alienation, of a generation of young people who’ll grow up thinking that participatory democracy and the notion of having a say in government simply does not concern them. The Association of Youth Centers in Vienna presented some of their stories. 

Take 18-year-old Bilawal, who came to Austria from Pakistan when he was two years old: Now on the student council of the computer science branch of his HTL (a technical oriented high school) in Vienna’s 21st district Donaustadt, he represents 400 fellow pupils. However, he is not allowed to elect his own representative in the city he’s lived in for nearly all his life. For young and motivated Austrians like him – and Austrians they are, in all but the passport. “You can do and learn as much as you want,” he says in frustration, “but your opinion is useless if you are not allowed to vote.” 

Or take Yamal and Ufuk: They, too, grew up in Vienna and see it as their hometown. But it’s others who decide their political future. Even paying taxes won’t change that, as 22-year-old Santos, currently in his second year of apprenticeship at a bakery, can attest to. 

Bilawal, Yamal, Ufuk and Santos were raised in Vienna; they live, study and work here. Despite having lived over 20 years in our city, they have no political say. 

But I do.

I moved to Vienna 10 years ago from Styria and care deeply about what happens here. But it’s not my knowledge or my connection to the city that gives me a say; it’s the piece of paper that says I’m an Austrian citizen.  

This Piece of Paper

Bilawal, Yamal, Ufuk and Santos are a small fraction of the approximately 72,000 residents between 16 and 24 who are excluded from the Vienna municipal election on October 11. In total, 30.2%, or almost a third of Viennese aged 16 and over are not eligible to vote, more than ever before. That is half a million people – roughly the population of Salzburg, Linz and St. Pölten combined. Of these, 80% have lived in Vienna for over five years, and 53% have been here more than a decade. Indeed, since 2002, the number of residents ineligible to vote in Vienna has doubled. And the numbers are increasing. 

It is about time that they get a say in how our hometown is run. 

Benjamin Wolf
Benjamin studied Journalism, History and International Affairs. After stints with Cafébabel in Paris and Arte in Strasbourg, he is now working as managing editor and COO for Metropole in Vienna. Fields of expertise are politics, economics, culture, and history. Photo: Visual Hub

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