Ömer Öztaş is the youngest member of the Vienna City Council and Regional Parliament, elected for the Austrian Greens on October 11, 2020, at only 20 years of age. Now 21, he is not only the youngest MP with Turkish roots, but the youngest absolutely. But despite the few migrants among his colleagues, or any of similar age, Ömer is as motivated as ever.
Öztaş began his political engagement five years ago, in the 2016 Austrian presidential campaign in support of now-president Alexander Van der Bellen. “The choice between Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen was not very difficult, to be honest,” Öztaş says with a smile.
From there on, he gravitated towards politics, talking with Viennese residents and continuing his activism within the Green Party. Since his election as deputy, he has been actively working to support the City and the Viennese in a variety of areas: youth unemployment, youth integration, climate change, environmental protection, LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, and awareness of racism, among others. As a young Austrian with Turkish roots, the external factors that led him into politics have been bittersweet.
Öztaş’ father moved to Austria at the age of seven with her father – Ömer’s grandfather – who came to Vienna as a Gastarbeiter in the 1970s. Having been born in Vienna and grown up in the 20th district of Brigittenau, Ömer has been a local Viennese all his life. The turning point that made him think about his identity as a Viennese with Turkish roots was an incident at school when he was 14: “You will never be able to study because you are Turkish,” his teacher had told him.
This active discouragement, separating him from others, was an eye-opener for him about racism, and most of all about the situation of many young people in Austria. Although his political engagement began officially at 16, his political journey really began with this incident. For the first time, he noticed that he was different, from his appearance to the way he talked – but in the end, they were really all the same.
“We were all in the same classroom, we lived in the same city, we spoke the same language (in class), and most of all, we were all just children,”, he said, referring to the incident. From there on, he began researching Austrian politics, unaware that one day, he would get a chance to be the change he sought.
A voice for those unheard
As Öztaş dove more into politics, he noticed that the average representative on the decision making level was about 45-50 years old. There was no one in politics to whom he could relate as a young person, with complex needs and expectations.
“The theme of youth is everything to me,” he told me. With his team and in collaboration with others in the Green Party, Öztaş now works actively towards supporting young people regarding homelessness, gender equality, acceptance in the family and in the workplace.
His biggest focus at the moment is youth unemployment. There are currently 10.000 unemployed young people in Austria below the age of 25. So, Öztaş is running campaigns for more job opportunities for Lehrlinge – young trainees in Vienna with his colleagues at the council. He also wants to focus on trainees with disabilities in the near future.
“If you look at the numbers, two thirds of the young people do not have faith in politics,” he said, – not only because of massive unemployment rates and the terrorist attack last year, but also because they think nobody cares about them or wants to attend to their needs. “That is why we want to talk to young people in the fall and ask them what they need and how we can do better.”
Öztaş is currently working towards increasing political involvement among young people. He believes that young people lose interest in politics and are not motivated to vote if they feel that the system does not support them. And this is worse for people with a migration background.
“I see a connection between integration and youth unemployment. If a young person cannot find work, they lack perspective. Then they think to themselves, how can I integrate into this state if they refuse to give me a chance to work,” he said. “The state should give them a future, so that they can say, ‘I’m happy here, I care about the politics, I want to vote. They need this motivation.”
Another aspect in the lack of representation is the few members in the city council with a migration background: There are only eight. This number in no way reflects to the number of Viennese with a migration background, which is over 40%.
“There is no role model for kids with a migration background,” he said, something he struggled with in his teenage years. He now wants to be that role model so that other young people will see that they can be politically active as well.
“What really makes me think is that from where I live in the 20th district, you only hear about young people on the news [when there is unrest]. I want to show that no, that is not us: We are young, we are migrants, and we are a new generation, a generation of change about everything that concerns young people and our future.”
Öztaş has dual responsibility, not only to his city and its people in general, but also towards the communities who are often ignored. To do this, he is also engaged actively with his Heimatbezirk, “I live in a worker district – not rich – and many have a migration background. When I walk in the streets I grew up in, when I go to the hairdresser I went to throughout my childhood, they say “Look! This is our deputy!” This is something I hold very dear,” he said, “because for many years, these people with different roots were underrepresented. There have been a couple of deputies who have lived there for 30 years or so, but no one asked “How can I help?”. Now, people I have known from my childhood approach me: “Ömer I have this or that problem; Can you help?” I appreciate that very much because they see me as someone from Brigittenau, a young person, who is willing to represent them.”
His goal is to be a voice for those who are unheard. Öztaş sees a massive democratic deficit in Vienna in the future because of the exclusion of young people without Austrian citizenship, who are unable to take part in elections, even though they may have been living in Vienna for much or their lives.
“Some 72,000 young people cannot vote because they have a foreign passport,” he said. “It’s the same with my mom, who has lived in this country for 23 years and was unable to vote for her own son.” And the number only growing; he pointed out. Ten years ago, it was about 25%, and in the most recent elections it was 33%.”
“If it continues this way, in another 10 to 20 years, half of the Viennese won’t be able to vote.”
A promise made
Beside his responsibilities as representative at the City Council and the Vienna Regional Parliament, Ömer is also studying political science and history at the University of Vienna. Although doing both at the same time is very demanding, he is not willing to disappoint the people who have voted for him. “My mom is a little bit upset about taking it slow with the university, though” Öztaş laughs. “But people trusted me and hoped I would be their voice, so of course I am working for them. I cannot let them down.”
With Turkish roots, Öztaş is subjected to prejudice both at work and outside. “What is someone named “Ömer” doing in Austrian politics” was one of the questions that has come at him so far. He has been portrayed as an Islamist on an FPÖ-friendly medium, or accused of association with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“In Austrian politics, and specifically in Viennese politics, there is a lot of prejudice against Turkish people,” he said. “They think ‘They are all extreme right wing; they are all this and that.’ But I’ve noticed that we are actually very diverse. But we are subjected to the same assumptions.”
“I came [to Parliament] for young people and for people with a migration background, and I want to voice that. I am not here to make foreign politics.”
Before he was elected, Öztaş worked for other deputies, behind the scenes. Being an elected representative himself is still new to him. He has never been coached in public speaking nor gone to a Parteiakademie.
“I write my own speeches,” he said. “If I’m burning to talk about an issue, I get out onto the stage with a few notes and speak from the heart. I don’t have any marketing strategies; I speak up when something is not okay. When something is good I praise it. I speak whatever is in my heart.”
In the future, Ömer wants to bring young people into politics by making the age range of the youth parliaments in the Viennese districts consistent, and include people who are older than 13 or 14. His ultimate goal is for Austrian politics to engage young people who want to bring change for a future together as one Vienna.