Austria opens the polls to 16-year-olds

Austria becomes the first country in the European Union to grant its 16-year-olds the right to vote in a general election this weekend but the move has provoked widespread controversy and criticism, even from the teenagers heading for the ballot box for the first time.

The new law lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 was passed last year by Austria's grand coalition government of conservatives and Social Democrats. It was expected to be used for the first time in polls scheduled for 2010, but the governing coalition was consumed by infighting and collapsed in July. And 200,000 new Austrian voters aged 16 and 17, now have a chance to vote on Sunday.

The move is designed to offset what is seen as a demographic imbalance caused by the Alpine state's rapidly ageing population. Last year Austria's 65-year-olds exceeded the number of 15-year-olds in the country. However, critics have argued that given the snap elections, the youngsters have not had enough time to prepare themselves as a result. And some of the would-be voters - who can purchase beer and wine even though they cannot drive or do military service - concur.

"I don't agree with the idea of teenagers of my age being given the right to vote," said Julia Tauschek, a 16-year-old high school pupil from the Austrian town of Linz yesterday. "We simply don't know enough about politics and we are not taught much about them at school either."

Sunday's contest is expected to be neck and neck battle between the conservative People's Party and Social Democrats, and opinion polls suggest far right Freedom Party and rightwing populist Jo(umlaut)rg Haider's Alliance for Austria could end up as kingmakers. The tight race means politicians have attached special importance to the new generation of voters: "It could be decisive because every vote will count this time," said Laura Rodas, 27, a Social Democrat MP who firmly supports the drop in the voting age. "I think we should be showing young people how politics can change the world."

Austria's rightist Freedom Party has gone out of its way to appeal to young voters. The party's perma-tanned 39-year-old leader, Heinz-Christian Strache appears at rallies surrounded by fans half his age. He portrays himself as a sort of rightwing Che Guevara on his web site and uses the Obama rallying cry "Yes we can!" at political meetings.

Christoph Hofinger, director of Austria's SORA institute for social research and analysis insists that lowering the voting age is simply designed to reflect the true make up of Austria's population: "Giving 16 and 17-year olds the right to vote helps to maintain the balance between the generations."

That view is contested by Austrian political scientists like Ferdinand Karlhofer of Innsbruck University. He maintains that research in the run up to this Sunday's poll has shown that the election will almost certainly be decided by voters aged 50 and over. "The idea that teenagers will have a big influence is just wishful thinking," he said.

Austrian media interviews with a random selection of 16-year-olds yesterday, produced very mixed results. Linz schoolgirl Julia Tauschek complained that her knowledge of Austrian politics was limited to what her mother had told her and to a background briefing on politics given during a two-hour history lesson at her school earlier this week.

Matthias Schrammel 16, a first year pupil at a Vienna business school said that he looked forward to voting on Sunday because he wanted to "influence politics". But he also complained that many of his contemporaries were ill informed and would probably end up "putting a cross on their favourite colour" once inside the voting booth.

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