Youth Votes Right

Election results reveal young Austrians to be surprisingly extreme - and influential

FPÖ chief H.C. Strache

FPÖ chief H.C. Strache poses proudly with Austira’s new young consituents | Photo: fpoe-amstetten.at

The Austrian parliamentary election is over; and there is a lot of head scratching. Although the Social Democrats scored highest, at 29.7%, they had lost nearly 10 percentage points. The People’s Party (The ÖVP) was second at 25.6%, down 8.7. The real victory, however, had gone to the right wing parties, Freedom Party (FPÖ), with 18% and BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria), with 11%, together gaining a total of 14 points.

These are the parties of xenophobia, who’s message was to basically throw out all illegal immigrants seeking asylum, and harden immigration laws to make Austria “Austrian” again, an uncomfortable reminder of a certain German chancellor.

So who had voted for them? In large numbers, it was the young voters, 30 and under who voted for the FPÖ, a full 25% and more than for any other party, ahead of the ÖVP at 23% and the SPÖ at 21%.

Among these were the 200,000 new teenage voters between 16 to 18, who were qualified to vote for the first time. With this change, Austria became the first nation of the 27 EU member countries, to lower the voting age to 16.

Until the post election studies are complete, it will be hard to know exactly what voting blocks were decisive in the final swing to the right. However, the weight of this young voting block is impossible to overlook.

No one expected it to make this much difference.

“The 2008 parliamentary elections are predominantly going to be decided by people over the age of 50,” said Ferdinand Karlhofer, head of the political science department at the University of Innsbruck, in an interview with the Associated Press. Teenagers “will be about 2.5 to 3 percent of the entire electorate and so their influence on the results is going to be small,” agreed Christoph Hofinger, a director at the Sora Institute for Social Research and Analysis in Vienna.

Because of the problem of an aging population, the Austrian government has tried to interest the younger generation in politics, wrote Gerhard Wisnewski of KoppVerlag, an online publisher in mid September. The Green Party and the SPÖ hoped to win these new voters and wooed them with a roll back of university tuition fees. The morning after the election, it clearly hadn’t worked: The FPÖ has attracted most of the youth vote. With the party’s extreme views on illegal immigrants, they touched a chord among a youth that appears to be somewhat conservative, insular and uncertain about the future.

In a survey conducted for this article, young people were asked about whether they were planning to vote and for whom, and whether they thought their voices would make a difference in the outcome. The results revealed a strong influence from the district in which they lived, and from their circle of friends.

A fifteen-year-old girl, Kati B. from the traditionally upper-middle class 8th District, was really disappointed that she would have to wait another year to vote. She and her best friend, who was half Turkish, would have voted for the Green Party; because even if they were not really interested in politics, they thought that the Greens were the least of the evils. When asked about their stance on immigrants and on the FPÖ’s intentions, they both smiled: They had nothing against foreigners coming into Austria.

Similarly, Stefan M., age 16 from the 4th District, also an affluent quarter, was torn between the Green Party and the Social Democrats. He was happy about be able to vote, and he firmly believed that the youth voice would have an impact on the elections. He   was very clear about his dislike for Heinz Christian Strache leader of the FPÖ. “Their way of thinking is backwards,” he said. “My two best friends are Serbian, and a lot of guys on our soccer team are foreigners.

“The way I see it, they are good guys who do not hinder the Austrians in any way,” he concluded.

However, not all those interviewed were left leaning. Two 17- year-olds from more modest areas were far less international. Paul R., from the 15th, the district with the highest percentage of foreigners in the entire city (as well as the highest number of brothels), said that he was not going to vote, because he did not really know who to vote for. He agreed with the Green Party and Social Democratic Party, but also with the FPÖ to some extent. And while he didn’t think that immigrants were that much of a problem, he wanted to point out that he supported Strache’s position of denying asylum to the illegal ones.

More extreme in her views, Julia H., from from an Austrian working class neighborhood in the 14th District, tended even further to the right. She supported the FPÖ and the BZÖ in their illegal immigrant sweeps, although at the same time insisted that she didn’t have a problem “per se” with immigrants.

“I do feel that Vienna has changed a bit because of the inflow of foreign people,” she said. “Not necessarily negatively, but it just doesn’t feel truly Austrian anymore. This is the main reason why I would vote for a right wing party, because I think that they would be the best ones to handle this situation.”

However anecdotal surveys are only a collection of individual stories: the views of these particular young people suggested the elections results would be different from what it was. Three out of five interviewed in depth said they would choose Green or Social Democratic over the Freedom Party or the Alliance for the Future of Austria.

Perhaps it was simply that H.C. Strache was easier to relate to. Young, handsome and media savvy, he may have been simply more like them.

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