Students For Fairness

Three Viennese youths submit a petition to stop inflamatory FPÖ campaign techniques

News | Vera Mair | September 2009

A poster hung on a dark-green lamp post next to a small Turkish grocer in Hernals, Vienna’s 17th District. A woman wearing a headscarf passes by with her five-year-old son and ostentatiously looks at the sky when they pass by. Other pedestrians take a short glimpse, some shake their heads, others nod, an elderly lady who is slowly pulling a grey carrier bag pauses and affirmatively mumbles: "That’s right! Away with the mob!"

"The West in Christian Hands" (Abendland in Christenhand) proclaims the poster in large red letters, the FPÖ’s electoral slogan for the upcoming European Parliament elections.

Thousands of posters of this kind for FPÖ far-right candidate Andreas Mölzer were put up all over Austria in May. The posters were, like those of all parties, partly supported through governmental funds. Much to the disdain of Jacob Lassar, a 17-year-old student at the Vienna International School, who was frustrated that an electoral campaign discredited members of other religious groups.

So he started campaigning himself and established a Citizen’s Initiative Against the Modern Crusade (Bürgerinitiative gegen den Modernen Kreuzzug). As of the end of August, he had collected more than the required 500 signatures to submit it to the National Assembly.

"If the electoral campaign of a party includes inflammatory elements against one culture or religion, like the FPÖ did, or misuses religious symbols, then we want it not to  receive further governmental funds and that it should pay back the subsidies," Lassar said, the Initiative hopes to have an amendment passed to the law governing public financing of election campaigns.

Ironically it was Heinz Christian Strache’s appearance at another citizen’s initiative in May that inspired Lassar to launch his own action. During the protest march of the initiative "Bye-Bye Mosque" (Moschee ade) protesting the extension of a mosque in the 20th District, the FPÖ party leader had carried a wooden cross to symbolically hammer home the message. It is to protest this gesture that the name was chosen.

"Heinz Christian Strache, with his cross, reminded me of the medieval crusades," Lassar told the Vienna Review. When he noticed that the Austrian Freedom party was using religious symbolism on its electoral posters, his initial reaction was, "This can’t possibly be true. That does it!" he remembered. So he started to research online about how to organize a citizen-action group and met with two friends to formulate proposals.

Determined that their initiative should succeed Lassar and two friends, Lenny Bronner and Moritz Yvon, tried to make sure that their petition would hold up under the National Assembly’s criteria.

"The problem was that the initiative has to appeal to the National Assembly. Many initiatives are rejected on the grounds that they have no jurisdiction in that area," Lassar said. "That’s why we are calling for an amendment – as this is something the National Assembly is responsible for." After consulting a parliamentarian jurist to make sure that their initiative fulfilled all legal norms, they started hunting for the 500 signatures.

"Totally enthusiastic – I want to support you," is how Lassar describes the reactions to their grassroots initiative. The group has been organizing gatherings at Viennese cafes – which are announced on the social network platform Facebook – so that interested parties can sign the list. The group is also planning to set up their own homepage and organize a benefit concert. In the weeks to come, the three students want to hand in their petition, which will then be considered in a plenary session of the Parliament and may lead to an amendment –  "which I would hope," Lassar emphasizes.

The group is planning to continue organizing gatherings even after the debate in the Assembly.

"I think it’s cool that this initiative has been founded by teenagers," assesses the 17-year-old with pride, "as this shows that we can change society, for more integration and tolerance!"

Regardless of the final outcome, with reports on the Austrian national radio station FM4 and an article in the weekly Der Falter, Jacob Lassar, Lenny Bronner and Moritz Yvon appear to have succeeded in their primary aim: to spark public discussion on xenophobia, and make a political statement that everyone can fight against it and make a contribution to greater tolerance.

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