More than 2,000 people without Austrian citizenship have voted in cities across the country in symbolic elections as part of an effort to push back against a surge in far-right sentiment.
Organised by “SOS Mitmensch”, a Vienna-based human rights group, Tuesday’s symbolic vote comes five days before Austrians cast their ballots in legislative elections that could launch the country’s far-right party into government.
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“We think it’s very important for people who live here to participate in democracy,” Alexander Pollak, SOS Mitmensch’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera, adding that the symbolic vote will see people from more than 75 countries on every continent vote in five cities across Austria.
Explaining that many residents of Austria – including some who were born in the country – do not have citizenship and are not allowed to vote, he said: “For them, it’s more than just symbolic. It’s actually a real opportunity.”
Pollak explained that the initiative, which started in 2013 and has grown annually, has taken on heightened importance as the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) and other political groups rail against Muslims, immigrants and refugees.
“There is a rising populism that divides the population of Austria between Muslims and non-Muslims, foreigners and non-foreigners,” Pollak said.
“It has become a new means of the political centre and not only the extreme right.”
With the right-wing Austrian People’s Party expected to win, the centre-left Social Democrats and the far-right FPO are battling for the second largest share of the vote.
Both the FPO and the Social Democrats are currently polling around 25 percent, according to local media reports.
If the FPO outperforms the Social Democrats, the party is expected to enter government with the Austrian People’s Party.
There is a rising populism that divides the population of Austria between Muslims and non-Muslims, foreigners and non-foreigners.
In December, the FPO’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, narrowly lost elections for the presidency, a role that is largely symbolic in Austria.
Established in 1956, the FPO’s inaugural leader was Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi functionary during World War Two and member of SS paramilitary.
Much of the FPO’s campaign has been focused on Euroscepticism, Muslims, refugees and other immigrants, with the party calling for Austria to join the Visegrad Group, a bloc of eastern and central European countries opposed to immigration.
Hannes Uhl, a spokesperson for the Social Democrats, said the FPO and the Austrian People’s Party have focused on refugees “to distract” from issues such as healthcare, social insurance, pensions and workers’ rights.
On Tuesday, the FPO was embroiled in a scandal when it was forced to suspend a low-ranking official who had been accused of performing Nazi salutes, which is illegal in Austria.
“Every time this sort of thing happens, they [FPO] say it is an exception. Austrians are laughing at them each time, saying ‘Oh look, another exception’,” said Uhl. “But it’s in the DNA of their party.”
At the time of publication, the FPO press office had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
Against this backdrop, SOS Mitmensch’s Pollak believes his organisation’s symbolic elections are part of the broader effort to stem the tide of racism and xenophobia.
“People shouldn’t be divided by religion or citizenship, but we are in a time when right-wing populism is very strong, especially in Austria,” he concluded.
“For us, it’s important to criticise things we do not like, but we also have to take positive actions.”