‘I pay taxes in Austria’: Anger as foreigners barred from Vienna council vote

Vienna residents will elect the city council on Sunday but almost a third of them will not vote because they are foreigners, sparking criticism that the ballot is inherently unfair.

'I pay taxes in Austria': Anger as foreigners barred from Vienna council vote
Photo: Alisa Anton/Unsplash

Austria has one of the highest proportions of foreign residents in the EU. 

In the cosmopolitan capital, almost a third of 1.9 million residents are non-Austrian nationals and they do not have voting rights apart from local elections in their district.

Some of them could be found at a mock polling station on one of Vienna's main shopping streets set up by an anti-racism NGO to draw attention to their plight.

Among them is Moritz Knoll, who can't vote even though he was born in Austria.

“I can't vote because I've been a German citizen since birth,” he says, adding: “If you pay taxes to the Austrian state I think you should be able to vote.”

Also in line to cast a mock ballot is Kelly Ortega, a Colombian woman in her thirties.

Ortega has lived in Austria for nine years but says applying for Austrian citizenship would mean “losing a part of my identity”.

Austria only allows dual citizenship in exceptional cases so those who apply have to renounce their other nationality.

Sociologist Rainer Bauboeck said this was one reason why on average only seven foreigners out of 1,000 become Austrian citizens every year.

As a result, there are certain districts where only a minority of those of voting age are actually eligible to go to the polls.

Asked about this at a recent campaign event, Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe), said that there were other ways for foreigners to get involved in civic life.

Ludwig, who is the overwhelming favourite to win re-election, told AFP that in any case the question of voting rights for foreigners was “a decision that rests with central government”.

'A precious asset'

The conditions for becoming an Austrian citizen have turned into a veritable obstacle course in recent decades, particularly under governments containing the anti-immigration far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

The income requirements alone would disqualify 60 percent of blue-collar female workers if they had to apply.

The fees to have one's application considered run to thousands of euros. A good level of German is required as well as at least ten years' residence.

And being born in Austria makes no difference at all, no matter how long one's family may have been settled in the country.

The SPOe, along with the Greens and the liberal NEOS party, have said they would be in favour of loosening the requirements. 

But the conservative People's Party (OeVP), the senior partner in the current governing coalition, is against this.

“Austrian citizenship is a precious asset,” OeVP Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said in a statement last year.

He said the current system promotes integration.

'Problem child'

The mock polling station was organised by the SOS Mitmensch NGO, which says that the city's “representatives are losing legitimacy” given that large swathes of residents are ignored.

That figure has doubled over the past 20 years and now stands at an all-time high.

SOS Mitmensch points out that well-heeled districts with fewer immigrants end up over-represented on the city council. 

“That has consequences on the wellbeing and feeling of belonging” of non-Austrian residents, says SOS Mitmensch's Gerlinde Affenzeller.

“In concrete terms 30.1 percent of voting-age people in Vienna are not able to vote because they don't have an Austrian passport. And we are drawing attention to this democratic deficit.”

Judith Kohlenberger, researcher into integration issues at Vienna's University of Economics and Business, says the injustice is inherent in the fact that the city would not have been able to function during the coronavirus lockdown in the spring had it not been for foreign delivery workers, supermarket cashiers and care workers.

“At school the children in these families learn civics lessons but these are just theoretical because they've never seen their parents queue up at a polling station on a Sunday,” she says.

Back at the mock polling station, Tufan Yildiz, recently arrived from his native Germany, heads into the booth after Ortega to mark his ballot paper, “unfortunately not for real”.

“It's like in a family: if one sibling is always neglected, there's a good chance they'll become a problem child,” he says.

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EXPLAINED: Who is entitled to Austrian citizenship by descent and how to apply for it?

Austria's nationality law is based on the principle of "jus sanguinis", with citizenship is given to sons and daughters of Austrian parents, but this can get tricky.

EXPLAINED: Who is entitled to Austrian citizenship by descent and how to apply for it?

As in many other European countries, Austria’s citizenship rules are based on blood (jus sanguinis). A child is considered Austrian if at least one of their parents is Austrian, irrespective of place of birth.

In theory, this should be a simple concept. But, in Austria, it can get tricky depending on the year a child was born, whether the mother or the father is an Austrian citizen and whether or not they were married at the time of birth.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get Austrian citizenship or stay permanently in Austria

Here is a simple guide to understanding how Austrian citizenship by descent works, who is entitled to it and how to apply.

Children born to married parents

A child that was born in wedlock, meaning that their parents were married at the time of birth, is entitled to Austrian citizenship by descent if at least one of the parents is an Austrian citizen at the time of the child’s birth.

However, children born before September 1983 are only entitled to Austrian citizenship if the father is Austrian. This is because, before a change in the law, the country considered that the woman would automatically “take” the citizenship of her married partner.

Things are the opposite for unmarried partners.

Children born to unmarried parents

A child that was born out of wedlock can obtain Austrian citizenship by descent if the mother is Austrian at the time of the birth.

Since August 2013, children born to unmarried parents can obtain Austrian citizenship if the father is Austrian, and an acknowledgement of paternity is made within eight weeks of the child’s birth.

In all cases where recognition of fatherhood or the determination by the court is done after his timeframe, children may be awarded Austrian citizenship by award in a simplified procedure. However, this means that the child will still have to go through specific requirements for naturalisation.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to apply for Austrian citizenship

Adopted children

Children of adoptive parents can obtain citizenship through a simplified and accelerated award process up to 14.

When things get tricky(er)

Things get a little bit more complicated if a person is trying to acquire Austrian citizenship by descent from a distant ancestor.

This is because they will need to prove that every person in the “bloodline” is entitled to Austrian citizenship, following the rules and considering the year.

For very distant relatives, with many family members born before 1983, each person must have been born either to married parents with an Austrian father or unmarried parents with an Austrian mother.

A birth, marriage, and death certificate (when available) will have to be shown for each relative in the Austrian bloodline. Additionally, the State will require proof that none of the persons has renounced Austrian citizenship before the birth of a son or daughter.

READ ALSO: How foreigners can get fast-track citizenship in Austria

Finally, there is an issue of whether the ancestor really was Austrian at all.

Between 1867 and 1918, Vienna was one of the capitals of an immense empire, the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The territory extended through what is now Austria and Hungary but also Slovenia, the Czech Republic, parts of Italy, Croatia, Serbia, parts of Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and Montenegro.

After the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian empire was dissolved. But, then, not all people who first considered themselves Austrians still kept Austrian citizenship. Thus, it is not uncommon for families that believe a grandfather came from Austria to find out they actually were Romanian or Polish, for example.

austria flag austrian flag austria

Austrian flag: who is entitled to citizenship by descent? (Photo by Sandra Grünewald on Unsplash)

How to apply for it?

If you are entitled to Austrian citizenship by descent, there are several ways to apply for it, depending on your residency. For people who live outside of Austria, the Embassy or consulate is the place to go.

For those who live in Austria, the provincial government’s office is where you can get more information and submit the documents.

Exceptions and different rules

In 2020, the Austrian federal government introduced an amendment to the Austrian Citizenship Act also to allow descendants of victims to apply for dual citizenship and become citizens in a simplified process.

All former Austrian citizens who were forced to leave before 15th May 1955 can apply for dual citizenship. This includes citizens of successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy who were residents in Austria.

READ ALSO: How descendants of victims of Nazism can apply for Austrian citizenship

The law extends to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including those that were adopted as a child.

Dual citizenship

In general, Austria does not allow for dual citizenship. Therefore, when people naturalise Austrian, one requirement is to renounce other citizenships.

READ ALSO: Austrian citizenship: Do you really have to renounce your original nationality?

However, people who acquire citizenship by descent do not have to renounce other citizenship. If, in the case of parents of different nationalities, the country of citizenship of the non-Austrian parent also foresees a jus sanguinis (citizenship “by blood” like Austria), the child will have dual citizenship.

According to Austrian law, the child does not have to decide between Austrian and the other nationality upon becoming an adult – the other State might require such a decision.