In Austria modern direct democracy is struggling to get off the ground due to the lack of unity and desire for reform in the national parliament. A pre-presidential election assessment from Tamara Ehs in Vienna.

In Austria, too, elections are becoming increasingly about personality. Its not only that communicating the manifesto is taking second place to the question of the attractiveness of the leading candidates, but more and more official positions are being filled based on the person rather than the party. Thus, for example, in recent years many municipalities have introduced direct elections for the office of mayor, and the election of the president that is preoccupying Austria at the moment has been a personality choice since 1929. Apart from these examples, there are very limited possibilities for direct democracy.

Experience shows that hopes for a strengthening of direct democracy tend to be expressed in rather modest ways. The Austrian political system is traditionally focused on parliamentary representation. Popular initiatives (Volksbegehren) have no teeth, no matter how many signatures of support they gain, and referendums cannot be initiated "from below", but only as a "top down" procedure (such as, for example, the referendum on Austrian accession to the EU in June 1994.

So there was all the more joy among civil society democracy initiative groups when the debate suddenly became more lively a few years ago. As a response to the perception that representative democracy was in crisis and to the associated public disillusionment with politics and politicians, some Austrian political parties began to show an interest in expanding the direct-democratic elements as a supplement to the parliamentary system. In October 2011, members of the Green Party in the national parliament submitted a proposal for obligatory referendums to follow popular initiatives that had gathered sufficient support, as well as a veto referendum on the Swiss model. They were followed in this in February 2012 by the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), and in April 2012 the Austrian People´s Party presented their own ideas for reform (Demokratie. Neu). These included the proposal for a popular initiative (known in Austria as a "popular demand" - Volksbegehren) which would entail an obligatory referendum if 10% of the electorate (c. 650,000 people) had supported it with their signatures; the outcome to be binding on the legislature.

Popular demand for more democracy

Even the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), which had traditionally been the biggest critic of direct democracy, stated its support for binding consultative referendums (Volksbefragungen) and binding popular referendums, if a third of the registered voters (or 50% on constitutional issues) had supported the initiative.

In January 2013 the ruling SPÖ/ÖVP coalition finally presented a draft law – but this only provided for an improved parliamentary treatment of popular demands and the possibility to support such demands online (on the basis of a digital voter register), plus a so-called "citizens inquiry". This did not go far enough for the opposition parties (FPÖ, Greens and BZÖ (The Alliance for the Future of Austria)) and for many prominent former politicians politicians? Whilst in April 2013 the latter launched the Volksbegehren Democracy Now(which failed to reach the necessary 100,000 signature hurdle), in May the former presented their own draft law: if a popular demand (in the form of a draft law) was supported by 4% of the electorate and if the parliament did not pass a corresponding law, there would be an obligatory referendum.

Barely a month had passed before a compromise between the SPÖ, ÖVP and Greens seemed to be within reach, with the support threshold raised from 4% to 10% (for simple laws) and 15% for constitutional amendments. Certain limitations in respect of content and structure (contraventions of basic human rights, EU and international law) were added, but otherwise the parties were in agreement.

Homeless democracy package

But in the meantime summer had come and the parliamentary elections were set for September. It was therefore decided to postpone any parliamentary vote on the compromise proposal until the next legislative period. That was how the so-called "Democracy Package" was never voted on. Instead, in September 2014 all the parties represented in the new parliament agreed to set up a parliamentary commission of enquiry i.e. a cross-party working group which drafts in outside experts. The Commission was given the name: Strengthening of Democracy.

The Commission, which began its sessions in the first part of 2015, based its work on the Democracy Package 2013. Whilst its call for the creation of an electronic voter register – which was supposed, among other benefits, to make it easier to support popular demands – was hardly controversial, the introduction of qualified support for those demands became a touchstone of how serious the various parties are about an enlargement of direct democracy.

The general focus of the Commission was, as its name states, on the strengthening of democracy – including, therefore, improvements to parliamentarism – and not only on direct-democratic elements. Thus, in its eight sittings, parties, experts and selected citizens not only debated the possibilities and limits of direct democracy at the national and regional levels, but also the influence and the task of the media in a democratic system, and took a close look into the workings of parliaments in other countries.

Nationwide Initiative and Referendum in Austria

  • Agenda Initiative: Citizens can use the Agenda Initiative to call upon the Parliament to debate a draft law. For the draft to be debated the initiators must first secure around 8500 signatures of support for their proposal to be allowed to proceed to the next stage: collecting at least 100,000 signatures of registered voters within a week. Thus there is no provision for a direct influence on legislation. If the threshold is reached, the parliament is obliged to debate the subject – but it doesn´t have to decide on a draft law that would fulfil the initiators´ proposal. [List of all initiatives].
  • Constitutional Referendum: The parliament presents a draft law or an amendment to the constitution to the voters for decision in a national referendum. In this case the outcome is binding. So far there have been only two such referendums in Austria: 1978 about the commissioning of the Zwentendorf nuclear power station; and 1994 about accession to the EU.
  • Plebiscite: introduced in 1988, the consultation is not binding and serves only to gauge public opinion. It has been used only once, in 2013. The question put was: "Are you in favour of the introduction of a professional army and of a paid voluntary "social year", or are you for the retention of general conscription and of compulsory alternative community service?"

For a worldwide comparison of all available tools for popular votes on substantive issue visit our Direct Democracy Navigator featuring more than 1300 legal designs in 106 countries

In order to demonstrate from the outset its commitment to bringing in the citizens, the Commission also entered new territory in terms of its composition: the Austrian electorate was called upon to apply to be involved in its work. The lottery produced eight citizens, some men, some women, who were given the right to speak – but not to vote.

Don't risk more democracy

As early as spring 2015 it became clear from the communiques of the party representatives that the discussions would not produce a broad consensus on the introduction of more direct-democratic tools. The compromise reached in June 2013, which had provided for popular demands with qualified support, did not hold.

The commission of inquiry had come up with numerous proposals for improving parliamentarism, allowing the governing SPÖ/ÖVP coalition – at a time of social polarisation and radicalisation – to abandon "the risk of direct democracy".

In September 2015, therefore, they merely decided to adopt the constitutionally provided authorisation for the federal states and municipalities which allowed them to amend their constitutions in such a way as to introduce some direct-democratic tools. In addition, citizens would in future be involved by means of crowdsourcing before the formal legislative procedure begins, and there should also be a neutral referendum booklet on the Swiss model. Little was left of the Democracy Package 2013. Only the new "voter evidence law" has entered into force (January 2016) and the consultations on abolishing the official secrets act (the so-called "freedom of information law") will soon be concluded. The opposition parties were strongly critical of the outcome of the Commission of Inquiry and spoke of a massive step backwards in respect of democracy.

Only sub-national reforms are realistic

The result of these developments is that the subject of direct democracy, and especially of citizen lawmaking, will not figure in consultations and discussions for the foreseeable future. There is a chance for direct democratic instruments to become established in the coming years solely at the regional and municipal levels – IF the promised amendment to the federal constitution to allow greater regional autonomy is actually implemented. For a radical reform in favour of more direct democracy at the national (federal) level, a total revision of the federal constitution would be necessary. This would presuppose a broad party consensus – and thus a renewal of the understanding of democracy. But in the Austrian political system the parliament occupies a central position. The view that the Parliament (the National Council) should always be "the master of events" is widely held there, with the result that without a change to the constitution only marginal adaptations and modernisations can be undertaken.

Tamara Ehs (picture) is political scientist at the University of Salzburg. She took part as an invited expert at the deliberations of the Commission of Inquiry.