In international Vienna, a third – 31% – of the population will not be able to vote in the upcoming city elections. In response, activists have launched the Pass Egal Vote (passport doesn’t matter) to give a voice to the growing community that is excluded from Austrian politics.
Organized by the human rights group SOS Mitmensch, Pass Egal is a symbolic election, open to all Viennese residents above the age of 16. For the past five years, the organization has held the simulated election at a polling station on Heldenplatz, where voters could fill out and submit their ballot, as in a regular election. However, due to COVID-19, this year’s Pass Egal election is taking place until Oct. 6 as postal voting only. (See links for ballots and information below.)
With the initiative, the human rights organization hopes to raise awareness for half a million Viennese residents who are barred from participating in politics for having the “wrong” passport. Many people belonging to this group are long-time residents or were even born and raised in the city. According to Der Standard, 80% of those ineligible to vote have lived in Vienna for over five years, and 53% have lived in the city for more than ten years.
Vienna is unarguably a diverse and multiethnic city. Currently, 45% of the population has a migration background (both parents born abroad), 37% are themselves foreign-born, and 31% are foreign citizens. But at the same time, the naturalization rate is only 0.8%.
Eugene Quinn, an activist for the campaign and co-founder of Vienna’s urban hub space and place, calls this “scandalous” and believes it fosters exclusion.
“Despite being born here and dying here, [immigrants] are somehow not encouraged to feel like they belong and can make an active contribution to the life of the city,” said Quinn, who has been a vocal supporter of the Pass Egal initiative. “It’s a question of whether Vienna wants to be an international city or a provincial village,” he said on the project’s Facebook page.
But because Austria has one of the strictest naturalization laws in Europe, many often have no other option. Austrian citizenship rests on the principle of “ius sanguinis,” also known as the right to blood, meaning citizenship is primarily acquired through your parentage. For all others, becoming an Austrian citizen is extremely challenging. To be eligible you must have been living here for six years, demonstrate an intermediate level of German, earn an income of over €1,400 a month if single, and usually more than €2000 if you have kids, and pass a citizenship test.
Additionally, Austria prohibits dual citizenship, which discourages many from naturalizing. Quinn argues that giving up one citizenship for the other is not as easy as one may assume.
“Giving up your old passport, your old nationality can be quite expensive, and it takes a long time to disengage,” Quinn said. “You also lose a lot of rights, pensions, health advantages, and you’re not looked on so well by the government of your old country.”
Quinn himself is a British citizen and long-time resident of Vienna, who says he has no desire to naturalize.
“If there was a Vienna passport, I wouldn’t mind having it, but I don’t identify very closely with Austria,” said Quinn. “From my perspective, it would somehow be a lie if I stopped being British.”
For people like Quinn, who want to become more involved with the city, an extension of voting rights would be a good option. However, neither the turquoise-green federal government nor the red-green city leadership has shown willingness to address voting reform. On the contrary, recent Austrian politics, especially under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, has more often seemed increasingly nativist and anti-immigrant, which may encourage the formation of the parallel societies that it so fears.
“Almost every country in the world fears losing some of its cultural identity, but at the same time, I think it’s a misunderstanding,” Quinn said. “Inviting people to vote means that they become more like the rest of the population and get involved in the community and political life of the city.”
You can find instructions and a ballot to download here at: https://www.sosmitmensch.at/pass-egal-briefwahl, with a further click for instructions in English at other languages at: https://www.sosmitmensch.at/pass-egal-wahl-mehrsprachige-infos/