Nik Pollinger

Austria’s new Jewish citizens get some help voting in 2024 elections

Austria’s political establishment is participating in a webinar on March 20th to ensure thousands of new Jewish citizens take part in the annual European Parliament elections on June 9th and National Parliament elections in the fall.

The country’s Jewish, or Jewish heritage, citizenry has more than tripled to approximately 40,000 since 2020. In that year, a new law was implemented that greatly facilitated citizenship claims by the descendants of 120,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. The 27,800 new citizens worldwide, including at least 12,758 Israeli-Austrians, supplement Austria’s approximately 12,000-strong resident Jewish population.

This is the first opportunity any post-2020 citizens will have had to vote in National or European Parliamentary elections, which were last held in 2019. However, it is not clear how many will participate in this “Superwahljahr” or “super election year,” because of barriers specific to this group.

Representative of many new citizens, Tamar (a pseudonym for security reasons) considered voting may be a low priority at first. The 38-year-old obtained Austrian citizenship through her great-grandfather who fled Austria in 1933: “I think most people focus elsewhere when applying, for example on the practical benefits such as living or studying in the EU.” She admits that even when the possibility came up, “Not living there and not being affected by the policies caused me to doubt my entitlement to vote. But recently, an Austrian friend’s perspective did make me change my mind that as an Israeli-Austrian I should participate.”

When they do decide to vote, these new voters face practical impediments to participating. A survey of 181 descendants who had recently completed the citizenship application process highlights some of the challenges. 62% characterized their knowledge of Austrian politics as “none or very low” and 85% had no, or only elementary, German language skills, which is a barrier to media consumption and registering to vote (the registration form is in German).

The survey was conducted among registrants for a live English-language webinar organized and moderated by this writer. It is the first such initiative to bring together Austrian politicians and diplomats to inform this audience about the elections and overcome obstacles to voting. Held on Wednesday March 20th, “Elections in Austria” features Austria’s ambassador to the UK and four of the five largest parties in Parliament, who have each supplied introductory videos for this audience (Neos, SPÖ, ÖVP and Die Grünen). The event occurs ahead of the registration deadline for the European Parliament elections on April 25th.

Deborah Schabes, 70, lives in Raanana and is the child of a refugee father who fled Austria at the age of 17. As a new Israeli-Austrian citizen, she welcomes the initiative and feels entitled to vote: “Voting restores the voice my family would have had, had we not been forced from the country. At the same time, I have limited German language skills and live outside of the country, which make participation challenging, but not impossible.”

Deborah is now on a mission to absorb as much information as possible to help her make a choice at the ballot box: “The involvement of figures from Austria’s government and politics in initiatives such as this webinar makes it clear that they are taking us seriously as a group of voters. Apart from practical advice about registering, I’m keen to gain a better understanding of the issues and build my knowledge over time.”

The political parties are not necessarily motivated to engage with these new citizens as a group who will be critical to their electoral fortunes, despite a very close 2016 presidential election pitting a far-right against a green candidate. The election was won by the latter with an exceptionally slim margin, just 31,000, after postal votes were counted (before the result was annulled for procedural reasons). In reality, the recently enlarged Jewish electorate is still small as a proportion of the whole at about half of one percent, politically heterogeneous and also hard to reach, being spread across many countries.

Instead, the main motive for Austria’s politicians, as much as its diplomats, to take this first opportunity to address this audience in one place, may be the message they want to reinforce: That Austria has turned a corner in terms of recognition for its complicity in the Holocaust and responsibility to atone, by restoring all the rights of which their ancestors were dispossessed.

In a video prepared specially for the event, Green Party Member of Parliament Georg Bürstmayr underscores the message with a personal reflection: “I am happy and grateful to see so many descendants claiming citizenship under the new law…handing a citizenship certificate to a new citizen at Austria’s Washington embassy in December was the most rewarding moment of my political career.”

Only one of the five largest parties has declined to participate in the event. Currently in the opposition, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), whose first leader was a former SS officer, enjoys a strong lead in the opinion polls. It denies being antisemitic as a party and endorsed the citizenship law implemented in 2020.

Dr. Eric Frey, president of the progressive Or Chadasch community in Vienna and senior editor of the national newspaper Der Standard, who is speaking at the event, said: “For the FPÖ, antisemitism is no longer a key motive, it even tended toward philo-semitism in recent years. Its rhetoric is mostly directed against migrants and the European Union. But under the current leadership of Herbert Kickl, the party moved further to the right and is now aligned with extremist groups where anti-Jewish prejudice is alive. So it is not surprising that the party might ignore an event for new citizens with mostly Jewish roots.”

Austria’s historic Jewish families last had their say in national parliamentary elections in 1930. Thereafter they were silenced by the Austrofascist dictatorship, murdered or dispossessed of their rights as citizens under its Nazi replacement and not encouraged and enabled to reclaim those rights fully until 2020. The descendants who have done so are colloquially known as “Wiederösterreicher,” or “Austrians again,” and to date there has been no obvious negative public reaction to them exercising their rights from afar.

As one of their number, Deborah Schabes is currently open-minded about who to vote for, but she is sure of one thing: “Voting is a civic duty which I feel obligated to do.” However many of Deborah’s peers join her this “Superwahljahr,” their participation and historically informed perspectives can only enrich Austria’s democracy.

About the Author
Nik Pollinger is a UK-based writer for publications such as The Daily Telegraph, The Observer and BBC news online. In recent times, he has written on the experiences of refugees from Austria and their descendants and sought to bring the latter into dialogue with contemporary Austrians. Aside from this special interest, Nik writes on interesting people, places and phenomena, from restorative justice to digital democracy.