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Austria will allow 16-year-olds to vote

Austria makes history in the European Union on Sunday by becoming the first member to give 16-year-olds a voice in national elections.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For her birthday, Nina Stanke gets 16 candles — and one vote.

Austria makes history in the European Union on Sunday by becoming the first member of the 27-nation bloc to give 16-year-olds a voice in national elections. And Stanke, one of up to 200,000 eligible Austrian teenagers, isn't about to pass up this opportunity.

"Yes, I'm going to vote," Stanke, who turned 16 just this week, said on a recent afternoon as she chatted with friends outside her school in central Vienna.

Stanke has a slew of choices.

Following the collapse in July of the governing coalition between the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People's Party, 10 parties have said they want to take a stab at ruling the Alpine republic. But only about half have a realistic chance of actually making it into parliament, where 183 seats are up for grabs.

The latest polls, without specifying a margin of error, show the Social Democrats clinging to a three point lead over the People's Party in their quest for the top spot. The far-right Freedom Party is expected to come in a resounding third. The Greens and the far-right Alliance for the Future of Austria are also expected to make it.

Candidate: 'Change the world'
With a tight race predicted at the top, the two main parties are flirting with first-time voters and — to some extent — making an effort to cater to a younger crowd.

For the Social Democrats, 27-year-old Laura Rudas — who is ranked fourth on the party's list of candidates — is doing most of the reaching out.

"During this election, it could be decisive ... every vote counts," she said.

Rudas, who has held a seat in parliament since January 2007, says she considers it her role to show young people that "politics can change the world."

With her trendy leather jacket and tight jeans, Rudas doesn't quite fit the picture of a politician.

Neither does her same-aged counterpart at the People's Party, Silvia Fuhrmann.

"How this clientele votes won't be decisive but is still important," Fuhrmann said.

Little impact
Fuhrmann, also a member of parliament, said the People's Party agreed to lower the voting change for demographic reasons, noting that Austrian society, like others in Europe, is growing older.

Experts say that's exactly why teenagers won't have much of an impact on Sunday.

"The 2008 parliamentary elections are predominantly going to be decided by people over the age of 50," said Ferdinand Karlhofer, head of the University of Innsbruck's political science department.

Christoph Hofinger, co-director of the Vienna-based SORA Institute for Social Research and Analysis, agrees.

"They will be about two and a half to three percent of the entire electorate and so their influence on the results is going to be small," Hofinger said.

Giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote is helping to maintain the balance between the generations but the core of the messages from the parties focuses more on middle aged and elderly voters, he said.

Still, it seems unlikely that Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, came up with a rap song — Viva HC — to sell his anti-foreigner message to seniors.

Who benefits?
Lowering the voting age came about as a political compromise between the Social Democrats and the People's Party, who wanted to give citizens living in the country the option to vote by absentee ballot. In the end, both became law.

Other nations that allow voting at 16 include Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and the Isle of Man, a British dependency in the Irish Sea.

Peter Filzmaier, one of Austria's most respected political commentators, said the Greens would likely benefit most from the young, first-time voters.

Austrian 16-year-olds have already been able to vote in some local elections. The same is true in other places, including neighboring Germany.

Walter Holub, director of a high school in Vienna, says interest in politics varies widely among the teenagers he supervises.

"A large majority still appears to be rather indifferent," Holub said.