Follow-up on my last post: we did not elect the Nazi! We elected the other guy, with 53.8% of votes in total and a voter turnout of 74.2% (which is pretty high). Turns out that a lot of people took a good, hard look at Hofer and his campaign and decided that even if they didn’t particularly like his opponent, the difference was big enough to vote against Hofer anyway.
Compared to elections in the USA, elections in Austria seem to be extremely well-organized and low-threshold. There’s no voter registration – any Austrian citizen who will be sixteen on the day of the election in question may vote, with the exception of some (but not all) people given certain sentences for certain crimes. We have to show photo ID, but we’re legally required to have some form of photo ID anyway, so that’s not much of an issue. (I hear that’s different in the USA? Although it’s kind of hard to imagine. How do you prove your identity in other situations, then?)
Elections are always held on Sundays, so most people don’t have to work anyway (Sundays are serious business here, or rather the exact opposite, and you better make sure you have all the groceries you need to survive the day before because you won’t get many on Sundays), and those who still can’t make it can apply for postal ballots and vote that way. Voting information is sent to all eligible citizens beforehand, telling them their polling place (usually a school, or maybe even always, I don’t even know) and its opening hours. Long lines are unusual to nonexistent, and certainly not long enough to wait for hours. The longest I’ve ever waited was maybe five or ten minutes.
I remember my parents voting before church when I was a child, my siblings and me tagging along. I’m glad they took me – if I hadn’t known what to expect, voting would have been much harder for me.
I swung by my polling place on my way home from my boyfriend’s and showed my voting info to two different poll workers who directed me to the specific room for me to vote in. Despite the high turnout, I could go right in – right in front of the committee sitting behind a bunch of desks pushed together. My heart fluttered nervously as I handed over my passport and voting information to the man sitting right at the center, waited for him to call out the number on the information and for two others to find me on their lists and confirm, and took my passport back along with the ballot and a blue envelope.
I chose the voting booth farther away from the door so any newcomers would see the other one was free, made my cross into the circle behind Van der Bellen’s name, and put the ballot into the envelope. The first time I voted, I was extremely nervous about that step, taking time for every single movement and looking about ten times to make absolutely sure I had ticked the right circle. This time, I was more used to the process already – I only checked twice. The first time, I panicked after putting the ballot into the envelope, momentarily sure I had done it wrong anyway – this time, the thought just briefly murmured somewhere in the back of my mind and died down again quickly.
I left the booth, dropped the envelope into the box in front of the committee, and smiled and nodded a goodbye. The guy in the center smiled back unexpectedly warmly, as if he was truly happy that I had taken the time to vote. (Maybe he was. I mean, they’re all volunteers, they presumably care about the process.)
Only a few minutes after I’d gotten back home, my roommate reminded me to vote, expressed their fear of the results and said they were thinking about jumping off the balcony. I told them they’d still have time for that later, trying to keep it light, while part of me anguished about their pain and part of me rolled his eyes and grumbled about overreactions.
And then I spent the afternoon browsing, making food and eating, doing some housework and some productive stuff, and most of all hiding from any newsfeeds.
The first results are made public at 5:00 pm. I had planned to just keep hiding forever, but only held out until 5:05 before refreshing Facebook after all.
I didn’t need to look past the first two posts to know Van der Bellen was in the lead. I couldn’t believe it at first, consciously tried to suppress the rising happiness, and checked an online newspaper. Turns out he wasn’t just in the lead – he had won. While not all votes were counted yet, his numbers were too high to allow for a win for Hofer.
I read and re-read the article over and over again, still disbelieving, still thinking that I must have missed something, some phrasing that gave the lie to the headline. Up until that moment, I had not realized just how pessimistic I had been about the outcome of the election, or how much that had affected me. The relief was so huge I wasn’t able to sit still or focus on anything for the next two hours, instead re-checking the article every few minutes for updated percentages and even watching the news segments about everybody’s reactions and commentary (something I never do). Hamilton’s “We won!” kept running through my head in an endless loop. I messaged my boyfriend about it, who was appropriately happy, and later on I messaged my roommate as well: they wrote back that they were crying.
I felt somewhat ridiculous about the intensity of my feelings. It was just an election, for a post that doesn’t have all that much power (realistically), and electing the other guy would not have changed the world, and 46.2% had voted for Hofer, and it wasn’t like his whole party was wiped off the face of the Earth just by losing a single election.
But still, I was happy, and I even felt proud of my country.
I can remember exactly two moments in my life when I’ve felt actual pride for my country. Patriotism isn’t really a big thing around here: stereotypical Austrian traits are mostly complaining about everything, skiing, and acting like Mozart and our history in imperial times make us special somehow, none of which make for a very good source of pride. (Also, WWII happened, and Austria participated, and that’s nothing to be proud of either.) One of them was this past Sunday. The other was in January 2015.
Back then, a lesbian couple was kicked out of a Viennese cafe by the owner who had seen them kiss. The owner made a bunch of homophobic remarks, said that things like that belonged into a brothel and not a cafe and such. While this was nowhere near the only instance of gay people getting kicked out of cafes (in 2014, about five to seven similar cases happened, according to an LGBT network’s speaker [article in German]), this one blew up: newspapers wrote about it, even some international ones, a protest was organized, and the owner even apologized after realizing what she had brought upon herself.
On the day of the protest, the square in front of the cafe (which, wisely, remained closed) filled with 2,000 people, many waving flags or holding signs. There was a stage with live music and at least one actual booth giving out rainbow flags. There were speeches (including appeals not to resort to vandalism), and a colorful, diverse crowd that included two boys who couldn’t have been much older than twelve holding hands just a few steps away from me, and couples with gray hair, and people of all ages and styles in between.
And there were representatives of two political parties, the SPÖ and the Green Party (which Van der Bellen belonged to), also giving speeches. I mostly remember the one from Ulrike Lunacek (Green Party), the vice president of the European Parliament. She talked about protection against discrimination for LGBT people and acceptance, and she spoke of both as European values.
Standing among the protesters, my breath fogging in the air, listening to her speech, I felt the strangest feelings rise within me: gratitude and pride that I was part of the country and continent she was talking about. It was extremely weird.
Usually, the values politicians talk about when they speak of “our values” are values that explicitly or implicitly exclude me and others like me. They’re respect for religious texts that call for my death, crosses hanging in public classrooms, Catholic holidays, traditions involving lots of dead animals and beer, “traditional” families and gender roles. They’re values people cite to exclude others, to withhold their rights, to divide and discriminate.
That day, that strange, strange day, the values talked about on stage were values explicitly including me, values I actually shared, values that would not harm me.
I wonder what it would be like to live a whole life with this feeling. To live every day knowing that when someone in your country says “our values” they actually do mean your values.
It must be nice.
I still want to do something.
The catastrophe I feared has been averted for now. I breathe a little easier, look into the future with a little more hope, but I know time goes on and life goes on and things won’t just magically get better for this single, small win.
And I still don’t know what to do. There are always programs and organizations calling for volunteers to e.g. help refugee children learn German, or refugees of any age to get to know the country, or neighbors who need assistance with anything from schoolwork over babysitting to grocery-shopping.
But all of those require so much social contact and skill and comfort with social situations.
I chafe at my limitations, and I want to push myself to do better, but pushing seems to take so much fight that I’m afraid I won’t have any energy left to navigate the situations I’ve pushed myself into, especially in the face of difficulties. I don’t know how to fix this, or even where to start.