Outrage and Action: the Youth

Austria’s youth mobilise for political change

News | Sara Friedman | November 2011

Photo: Laura Gaetano

The Austrian Student Union’s "Education Action Day" (Bildungsaktionstag) had been planned weeks in advance. When 18 Oct came, hundreds gathered outside the Ministry of Science on Minoritenplatz to demand more funding for Austria’s ailing universities, while plenary sessions at the Universities of Salzburg and Graz highlighted the issue ahead of Finance Minister Maria Fekter’s budget speech. These are not the actions of a so-called "apathetic youth."

Which should be good news for the "WutSenioren," a group of retired Austrian politicians who hope to engage Austria’s youth in their "Last Stand" to reclaim what they see as a failing democracy. In a recent article in the German weekly Die Zeit, the group was described as taking up youth’s traditional gauntlet, with the tall order of "Saving the Republic."

Granted, things are just getting started, and in comparison to their car-burning peers in London and Paris, these young Austrians might seem tame. The burning spirit of the ‘68ers doesn’t appear to animate this generation. Yet Janine Wulz, the elected head of the Austrian National Union of Students (Österreichische HochschülerInnenschaft), thinks that the old guard’s posture as Austria’s last hope is exaggerated.

"It’s always good when people want to change something," she said, "but there are young people who are also engaged in political discourse every day, and they shouldn’t be overlooked."

Eva Glawischnig, Federal spokesperson of the Green Party, doesn’t think that Austrian youth are apathetic compared to their peers elsewhere. However, "secondary schools are too cautious," she told The Vienna Review, and too conservative to encourage political debate during lessons. Political parties, in her opinion, could fill this role and engage the youth by listening to them, encouraging argument and "generating discourse."

Verena Hanko, an 18-year-old philosophy student at the University of Vienna, agrees. "[Young people] are interested in politics, but don’t have a chance to talk to the people." She regularly discusses politics with her friends, some of whom vote for the FPÖ. Disagreement doesn’t seem to deter them or impact their friendship.

In a discussion forum with students organized by Der Standard in October, Glawischnig said she was pleased to note that Austria’s young people appear more interested in concrete issues than party politics. Hanko’s experience is indicative; she went to the Austrian parliament to observe the political process firsthand and was dismayed by what she termed "kindergarten politics," discourse that neither addressed relevant topics, nor party programmes.

For the politically inclined, there are plenty of opportunities, from parties’ youth wings to the ÖH. While the former are often seen as political training grounds, the ÖH is "very open and it’s easy to get involved," according to Wulz.

More obviously, young Austrians can vote well before they even graduate from high school. To those unwilling to vote for current parties, protest may be the only alternative in which to make themselves heard. And while Austria is not a society accustomed to revolt, young activists say, this shouldn’t be read as complacency.

"People need some time to think about things, but they do protest when it comes to issues that they feel strongly about," Wulz said. So far, their main concern has been education and anti-racism, as in the 8 May protests (see The Vienna Review June 2011).

So if the WutSenioren aim to reform the political system, they may well find the allies they need in the young. They have only to try.

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