It’s Election Time, and Migrants Matter (Finally!)

With one in five Viennese voters having an immigrant background, parties have now discovered another kind of foreigner-focused campaign for the upcoming elections

News | Stefan Apfl, Barbara Toth | October 2010

"Iyi Aksamlar, Kalispera, Dobra Vecer, Good Evening," said the moderator as she stepped onto the stage in the packed ballroom of the Vienna City Hall. Sitting at her feet, were Sikhs next to Turks, Chinese next to Greeks, Vietnamese next to Serbs. Around 500 entrepreneurs of small and medium-sized businesses with migrant backgrounds responded to last Friday evening’s invitation from the SPÖ (Social Democratic Party) to the second "Gala Evening of Ethnic Business." One third of the businesses in Vienna are run by migrants. Just last year, people from 85 countries started businesses.

"You can always count on City Hall," SPÖ City Councilor for Finance Renate Brauner assured the guests, and Councilwoman for Integration Sandra Frauenberger called out "We are on the good side of power!"

The multicultural evening at the City Hall was just one of many events the red city government has been using for the municipal elections to be held in the capital city on Oct. 10. This time the SPÖ is managing a foreigner-focused election campaign of a different kind.

"Migrants are the new proletariat," Frauenberger said a year ago in a Falter interview. Back then it sounded frivolous. In the mean time, her statement has taken hold as a political reality.

This time, the defending champion’s campaign is centered on the "New Austrian." One third of all Viennese and a fifth of all voters have migration backgrounds. Austrian Serbs and Turks, Croats and Kurds – they are all being wooed. Yet, the SPÖ is not promoting a slogan of fear. They have left that to the head of the FPÖ (Freedom Party) Heinz-Christian Strache with his posters "Mehr Mut für Wiener Blut," a phrase difficult to translate: "More courage for Viennese blood" or perhaps the "Viennese spirit." Nor is it campaigning in pseudo-gestures, such as those used by the head of the Viennese ÖVP (Austrian Peoples’ Party) Christine Marek with statements like "Let’s talk about education - ideally in German."

For the first time, the SPÖ has been using self-assured calls for integration. Mayor Häupl has even showed himself with migrants on posters – still a no-go in commercial advertisements in 2010 – alongside which key words of his campaign can visibly be read, "Clear Rules for Living Together."

This is one slogan that has been thoroughly tested. An independent team in the SPÖ campaign headquarters across from the MuseumsQuartier develops strategies in order to "no longer talk about, but rather with ethnic minorities," as Häupl said in the current edition of the magazine for the Turkish immigrant community Biber. Five thousand Austrians with migrant backgrounds were polled by the Ifes Institut just before the summer on their political hopes going into the campaign. The result was so simple it was surprising: Even those not born in Austria long for serenity and order in the city.

The SPÖ is not the only party to have discovered, although a little late, another type of foreigner-focused campaign. Anyone who attempts to provide an overview of the great lengths the parties are going to in the weeks and months before the election to appeal to the migrant communities comes upon a mish mash of partly strange and partly surprising campaigns. Surprising because the typical Viennese doesn’t usually get it, and strange because the campaigns appear to be proceeding like an advance towards an unknown planet that was right nearby all the time.

The campaigning parties have invested tens of thousands of euros in part on foreign-language advertisements in migrant media such as Biber, Kosmo and Yeni Vatan Gazetsi, appearing next to interviews of the top candidates. Additionally, politicians of all backgrounds visit and even organize traditional Muslim Iftar-Meals during Ramadan. The ÖVP organizes Serbian evenings with Serbian-Orthodox priests, while FPÖ politicians paid, of all things, a visit to the Kurdish New Year celebration Newroz and the Greens for the first time are distributing Kurdish language brochures. The SPÖ won over the allegiance of the Serbian-born boxer Goran "Gogi" KnezCevic from the FPÖ. And the ÖVP-head candidate Christine Marek makes pilgrimages to the Turkish Atib headquarter, Austria’s biggest Mosque congregation, while ÖVP party leader Matthias Tschirf has tried unsuccessfully for months to obtain a joint appearance with a very popular Serbian-orthodox Patriarch in Belgrade.

But above all, all of the parties are positioning and marketing their candidates with migrant backgrounds accordingly to target groups. Up until now, only three foreign-born members have sat with the SPÖ on the city council. Now, one out of six candidates has foreign roots, whereas in the case of the Green Party, seven of the first 20 candidates. With Lukas Markovic, the FPÖ has for the first time an Austrian of Serbian descent campaigning for them. The ÖVP on the other hand has tried to gain points with the Christian immigrants with the candidacy of swimming star Dinko Jukic of Croatian descent. Even the first Turkish headscarf-wearers are campaigning for the SPÖ and ÖVP.

A look back clarifies the speed of this change. Just 14 years ago, the current head of the Viennese Green Party, Maria Vassilakou, celebrated becoming the first municipal councilor with a migrant background. It would be five years before the Turkish Social Democrat Nurten Yilmaz would follow.

In the late 90s, the SPÖ Secretary of the Interior Karl Schlögl competed against the then head of the FPÖ Jörg Haider for the roll of the most extreme right-winger in foreigner politics. Foreigners were perceived as a diffuse threat, not as a future political hope, and definitely not as potential voters.

"When I began consulting the Viennese SPÖ in 2001, they didn’t want to talk at all about foreigner related topics," remembers Häupl’s U.S.-American consultant Stanley Greenberg in a Falter interview. "Since then, one can no longer not talk about foreigners. We have come to a point where we recognize and openly discuss the diversity of society and how we want to deal with it."

But it was FPÖ head Heinz-Christian Strache, of all people, who opened the debate on migrants when he solicited the Serbian community in the 2008 parliamentary elections. Not only did he demonstrate a surprising interest in foreign policy by repeatedly criticizing the independence of Kosovo as illegal, but as in the current campaign, he wore a Serbian-Orthodox prayer necklace along with a visible blue Brojanica.

One look to the population figures in Vienna is enough to understand why Strache divides foreigners into "good" and "bad," in short, into Muslims and Christians. One out of five of the 950,000 voters have a migration background. Due to their size, the most relevant voting groups for the party strategists are the Serbs and Montenegrins, Turks, Czechs, Germans, Bosnians and Polish. Together these groups represent around 120,000 voters.

With an eye to the current campaign, Strache even founded the Christian Freedom Party (CFP). How does this sub-organization fit with the traditionally xenophobic and anti-clerical FPÖ?

"The FPÖ has always been a home-conscious party that represented the interests of its own people. It was not, and is not, xenophobic," said the German-Serb Konstantin Dobrilovic who, sporting a well-cut suit, met us in a Cafe on the Graben in central Vienna.

The devout Christian met Strache in 2008 at a Viennese charity event for Serbs in Kosovo. Since then, he rose from selling socks to heading the CFP. Among other things, his job includes marketing himself to the media as a well-integrated stereotypical Serb. During the campaign, the CFP has been giving press conferences and organizing podium discussions, networking with Christian associations and sending representatives on neighborhood tours.

Asked about his understanding of politics, Dobrilovic talks about a Christian Europe with values such as family, virtue, opposition to forced marriage or forced genital mutilation, and an unwillingness to integrate with Austrian Muslims.

"Europe was born on a pilgrimage," quotes Dobrilovic from Goethe, "and Christianity is our mother tongue."

Croatian-born swimmer Dinko Jukic also talks about Christian values but in the context of the necessity to integrate.

"We do not, however, promote agitation," said the athlete, who was presented a few weeks ago by the ÖVP as a free-agent candidate. "I stand for successful integration and that each of us can make it on our own strength and without paternalism," said Jukic. He is a kind of poster child of a Migration Hero.

"The parties that manage to tell the story of a common ascension that historically rivaling groups can identify with will benefit," argues Sora-pollster Christoph Hofinger.

Like Jukic, the Kurdish-born Green Senol Akkilic refuses to be reduced to a symbol of his community. Both say their "target group is all Austrians," but also admit that their networks mostly comprise the migrant communities.

"We don’t put migrants on the ticket in order to address voting groups," said the integration worker Akkilic. "We represent the diversity of Vienna." Migrants in Vienna appreciate the Greens particularly for their progressive immigration and human rights policies, according to Akkilic. The SPÖ only often wins the competition for votes because they offer apartments, jobs and subsidies.

The Ifes poll from early summer agreed with Akkilic, and proves that Strache’s Serbian commitment has impressed journalists more than the Serbian community. "Only" 27% of Serbs, Bosnians and Croats vote for the FPÖ, compared with 56% for the SPÖ. Among the Turkish-born voters, of which a clear majority belongs to the working and professional classes, the SPÖ obtains 78%, according to Ifes and the Greens – 16%. The ÖVP is lagging behind with both groups, with 5% and 6%, respectively.

Christine Marek’s campaign demonstrates the difficulty of trying to respond to the interests of both migrants and indigenous Austrians at the same time without offending one of the two groups. The ÖVP leader, for instance, apologized during a visit to the Mosque congregation Atib for a statement by the party’s young candidate Sebastian Kurz, who called for German language services in local mosques and described the Islamic denomination as unwilling to integrate.

"Such insensitive attacks could happen to the most careful campaigner," Marek said at the meeting. Shortly after in a broadcast, she expressed her "full support" for Kurz. Within a short time the Islamic officials circulated this as an example of the "two faces" of Marek.

The current manner of courting migrants has produced a further problem which Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, describes as "Ethnicization of Austrian politics." If the FPÖ exploits the political oppression of the Kurds in Turkey as an example of the uncivilized Turkish immigrants, or when the ÖVP politician Mustafa Iscel advertises, as in the last election, that his party campaigned against the recognition of the Turkish genocide of Armenians, it is not exactly conducive to peaceful coexistence in Vienna.

"This type of ethno-politics runs the risk of importing international conflict to Vienna," said Schmidinger.

That this was already the case was made clear after the boarding of the Turkish Marmara-fleet by the Israeli military in the early summer. After a powerful and eloquent appearance by Iraqi-born SPÖ politician Al-Rawi at the heated demonstration against Israel, the first Jewish officials resigned from the SPÖ. And later as Al-Rawi, ironically also acting as the integration spokesman for the Islamic Fellowship of Belief (IGGIÖ), headed the unanimous passing of a resolution against Israel in parliament, Viennese politics found itself caught in the middle of the Middle East conflict. Thus, religiously charged, ethnic election campaigns could be history by the next parliamentary elections five years from now.

"It is grotesque to be first approached as members of an ethnic group rather than as a worker, employee, self-employed person, education hungry, poor or old," maintained network researcher Harald Katzmair.

The fact that Viennese politics presently finds itself in a somewhat in-between stage, just now leaving the extreme "foreigners don’t interest us" phase behind and the era of election courting across race still to come, every political strategist thinks he knows best who belongs to the growing pool of migrants from the second and third generation.

Czech-born Beko Paxant, for example, is head of the red youth election campaign and the man who recruited the Serbian boxer Gogi Knežević as the draw for SPÖ events.

"Admittedly, we have taken a long time to orient ourselves in this new environment," said Paxant. "Now fighting for votes is not about race, rather sociological factors. There are just as many ‘Bobos’ among the Serbs, Turks, Croats and Czechs as there are enlightened, leisure oriented and ‘Schwarzköpfe.’" Schwarzköpfe, "the dark-haired," a term used by the rapper Nazar, describes disillusioned youth migrants who spend their time in shopping malls. To reach them is the most difficult job.

One look at the U.S.A. reveals future challenges. Even in the White House, the principle of the liaison officer still exists. Several people in the office of public relations handle specific social groups, such as the Jewish community, the African-Americans and the Catholics.

"I have no idea how we are going to do it in the post-Obama era," Greenberg admitted. "The very idea of having someone who brings in the views of the black population has, in the meantime, come to look bizarre."


Translated by Ingrid Salazar

This article appeared originally in German in the Sept. 15, 2010 edition of the Viennese weekly, Falter, Nr. 37/10. It appears here in English for the first time, with permission of the authors.

Other articles from this issue