Vienna will elect its municipal parliament on Sunday. A third of the city‘s adult population will not be allowed to vote: They do not have Austrian citizenship. Essentially xenophobic laws make it almost impossible for them to be naturalized. The biggest group within the disenfranchised population comes from former Yugoslavia.
Marina Cerović lives down the hall from me on the 2nd floor in a building in Vienna‘s 16th district, a working class and migrants‘ neighborhood.
Marina was born in the city 29 years ago. She finished school here, worked as a pharmacist‘s assistant and now as an X-ray assistant in one of Vienna‘s hospitals.
She gave birth here to Filip, Ema and Aleksandar.
„I have never lived outside of Vienna for more than two months at a time“, she says.
In other words: She has lived in the city longer than I have.
Unlike me, Marina will not be able to elect her representation in Vienna‘s city council on Sunday.
„I am a Serbian citizen“, she says. Marina is the descendent of Yugoslav gastarbajtari who came to Austria in the 60‘s and 70‘s, helping a growing economy struggling to find enough workers.
It is difficult to tell whether she is a 2nd or 3rd generation migrant. Like her, her mother was also born in Vienna already, and she married a first generation migrant from today‘s Serbia.
Marina, too, is married to a man born in Serbia, making her children both 2nd and 4th generation migrants.
Almost Half A Million Are Disenfranchised
Her case is not uncommon. Around half a million people of Vienna‘s 1.5 million strong adult population do not have Austrian citizenship. This makes them ineligible to participate in Sunday’s elections.
Though it is not certain how many of them were already born here, the number is certain to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Unlike the United States and many other countries, Austria does not grant citizenship to children born on its soil.
The country considers having an Austrian passport a hereditary right. You are only a natural born Austrian if at least one of your parents was already a citizen by the time of your birth. This is called „ius sanguis“, the „Law of the Blood“.
Naturalization Has Many Hurdles
Naturalization, obtaining citizenship, is a difficult process with many hurdles that deliberately disadvantage many migrants.
One of these hurdles is the minimum income. Migrants have to earn at least around 940 Euros a months net if they want to become Austrians.
This may not sound a lot, but among other things it is the details that make that amount hard to reach for many people: This is an average income over the last years and welfare payments or other forms of financial social transfers do not count.
This has made Kemal resign to the fact that he will never have an Austrian passport.
He was born in Sarajevo and came to Vienna just before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.
Due to health problems he had to go into early retirement. His pension is less than 800 Euros a month. The 150 Euros or so he gets as a supplement to pay for his ongoing health problems do not count as income he has been told and so he will probably never be able to apply for Austrian citizenship.
He did not want his last name to be included in this piece.
His case is also less than unique.
Many of Austria’s Working Poor Are Migrants
Migrants in Austria are typically pushed into badly paid jobs, and quite often under precarious conditions, which particularly disadvantages women.
Alongside meager wages, this often includes becoming unemployed more often than the average population.
Also, typically people who come to the country are young adults who have worked in their home countries for a few years already.
So they quite often do not reach the 45 years of minimum employment to get full Austrian pensions and the pensions in their poorer countries of birth, should they get any, do not amount to much.
Many pensioners born abroad struggle with incomes of less than a 1.000 Euros a month, putting them around or below the 940 Euro threshold necessary to meet in order to qualify for an Austrian passport.
It is not just them for whom the minimum income is a hurdle hard to overcome.
Unemployment benefits in Austria are notoriously low, making up for just about 55 per cent of people’s last net incomes.
Longer stretches of unemployment, such as particularly migrants are likely to experience, are likely to draw a person’s income below the minimum required for citizenship.
“My husband lost his job here and struggled for a longer period to find a new job”, Marina says. “I was on maternity leave at the same time, so we couldn’t meet those requirements”.
The Absurdity of It All
Renato Čiča’s case is unique.
Born in Sarajevo, Renato has fled his hometown as a teenager when the war started. He is a Croatian citizen.
Renato runs for a seat in the borough or district council. As a Croatian, he enjoys active and passive voting rights on a local level.
Like in Berlin, in Vienna that is in the boroughs or districts.
Vienna has 23 of them, and their local councils are responsible for local traffic management, parks and other local affairs such as art.
EU citizens can vote in these elections if they apply for voting rights.
On the municipal or citywide level they are disenfranchised just like any other foreigners. Like Berlin, Vienna is both a city and a province – the city council also acts as provincial parliament.
According to the EU treaties, the exceptions for EU citizens’ suffrage for local affairs does not apply on that level anymore.
“Nevertheless, I am glad that I have a say in what will happen in my borough”, Renato says. “And let’s see if I get elected into the local council”.
He has been active in Vienna’s ruling Socialdemocratic Party SPÖ for around a decade now. This is the first time they have nominated him to hold a political office – albeit farther down on the ballot.
“Of course I’d also like to have a say in municipal affairs”, Renato says who works as an assistant for people with disabilities. “I pay taxes like everyone else, I have a job, a family. I have a stake here.”
He hasn’t applied for Austrian citizenship yet, he says. “Bosnia barred foreigners from owning real estate for a long time”, he says. “So I couldn’t have inherited my parents’ place in Sarajevo. That’s not something you easily want to give up.”
While Austrian law allows for dual citizenship in these cases, there is no guarantee that the exception will be granted in each individual case.
Citizenship Is Expensive Here
“Besides, the fees for Austrian citizenship are pretty high. I couldn’t have afforded that for most of the time even though my wife and I both have jobs”.
In his case, naturalisation for his two kids, his wife and himself might easily cost up to 5.000 Euros.
“I don’t think these conditions are fair”, Renato says. “If we are denied a say, it makes it a lot harder for us to feel at home here and to embrace Austrian society.”
The Very Idea of Democracy Is Put In Question
Zeynep Arslan has a similar perspective. Turkish born Zeynep is an expert for migration and gender issues. She is of Kurdish origin.
“If 30 per cent of the population in a city can not vote, this puts into question the very idea of democracy”, she says.
“This just polarizes society and aggrevates conflicts, provoking political appropriation which is detrimental to social peace and justice.”
Only by enabling and supporting everyone institutionally to affirm their membership in a society, and by extending and strengthening democratic principles could people develop a vision of a “We” that embraces a society wide and egalitarian common existence.
“This “We” or “Us” supersedes cultural, religious or other identities and squelches the sources for right wing radicalism and extremism in the autochthonous as well as the migrant population”, Zeynep says.
“What we need is less fear of the so called stranger and a lot more courage and confidence in how powerful democratic values and human rights can be and how they form the frame for a peaceful coexistence. I mean, this pandemic should have shown this to everyone: We need each other.”
This is a message that rings hollow in a lot of Viennese.
One of Austria’s Problems: Racism
While Vienna’s Social Democrats have been the strongest party in every election ever since the founding of the republic in 1918, and while there has always been a left wing majority in the city council, xenophobia and racism aren’t exactly alien to a lot of people whose families have lived either in the city or at least the country for three or more generations.
The right wing radical and openly racist FPÖ came in a strong second with 30 per cent of the vote in the last municipal elections in 2015.
And many newcomers complain of open racist harassment by local citizens or sometimes even authorities.
Social Democracy Is Afraid of Its Own Voters
SPÖ fears it could mobilize those racist sentiments against the party if it moved to enfranchise all foreigners who have lived in the city for, say, more than five or ten years.
The party prefers to do things quietly. It does run foreign born members for political offices, no questions asked, and some of them have even made it into the national parliament or, like Saya Ahmad, are the head of a borough’s council. With Silvia Janković, another foreign born woman is poised to take over a local council in the upcoming elections.
It’s just that one does not want to talk about it too much.
According to many critics from the left, including political scientists, by not standing up openly for migrants’ rights and avoiding open conflict, SPÖ strengthens racist sentiments on the long run.
Besides, in areas with a lot of naturalized migrants, the party’s share of the vote is usually strongly above the city wide average.
FPÖ’s propaganda that it has a high share of votes, if not a majority, among naturalized Serbians and Bosnian Serbs is not supported by election results in migrant neighborhoods.
Marina And Katarina Want to Do Their Bit Against The Right
They certainly won’t get Marina’s vote. “This shift towards the right in Austria worries me and I want to do something against it”, she explains why she considers applying for citizenship next year.
“I will have lived here for 30 years then, and after that time the law practically gives me a right to citizenship”, Marina says.
Katarina Kaupa, nee Marjanović, certainly has never thought of supporting the right wing radical party, either.
Among other things, it is the rise of the right in Austria that has made her start her naturalization process. “I want to do my bit against this development”, Katarina says.
She is a kindergarten teacher for children with special needs. Born in Bor in Serbia, she has lived in Vienna for 17 years. “That’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life”.
She long hesitated to cut her ties with Serbia. It is not an easy step, she says. Particularly not as Katarina is a founding member of Protiv Diktature Beč.
The movement has organized several protests against Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and tries to disseminate critical info about the political situation in Serbia.
Hypothetically, she should be an Austrian citizen by now. “Austrian authorities have already granted my application”, Katarina says. “That was in March. What I am waiting for is for an affirmation that Serbia has aknowledged my renounciation of Serbian citizenship”.
There is no explanation why this takes so long in her case. Usually this happens a lot faster.
Under normal circumstances, Kataria should have been eligible to vote on October 11th. However, the date for entry into the voters’ register was in mid July. By then, she was not yet an Austrian citizen.
Even with Austrian citizenship just being a matter of time for Katarina and a real possibility in the near future for Marina, both women are under no illusion that this will mark the happy end of their integration into Austrian society.
“No matter what my passport says, for many people here, I’ll always be a foreigner”, both say.