October 8, 2010 § 2 Comments
How does the system work? (the theory): Austria has a President who in theory has a lot of power but in practice is a ceremonial figurehead. They are elected by a universal suffrage first past the post election with a runoff election between the two highest placed candidate in the event of no presidential candidate winning 50% of the vote. Presidents can only serve two terms and members of any royal family (present or former) are ineligible.
The leader of the executive in real terms is the chancellor. They are chosen by the president who invariably chooses the leader of the largest party in the lower house. Unusually Austria does not have a system of whipping or collective cabinet responsibility and the Chancellor has no powers to garner agreement from colleagues and must instead use diplomacy to achieve the desired result.
The parliament is bicameral. The lower house is the National Council and has 183 members. It is elected by an unusual form of semi-open list PR which has many of the features of top-up or mixed member PR. It’s quite nice in that it combines total proportionality with a local link and allows choice of candidates – its also very easy to vote in. However the mechanics of it are a little confusing so bear with me, this gets complicated.
Voters vote for a party and can specify one preference for a regional candidate and one preference for a state wide candidate. These preferences are used to rank the candidates within the party lists at the regional and state level – the federal level lists are chosen by the party leadership.
The country is divided into 43 roughly equal electoral districts – the regions. So if these regions were to elect all the members they would elect slightly more than 4 MPs each. Any candidate from the regional list who overcomes the Hare quota for a constituency is automatically elected. In other words if a party has more than a quarter of the vote in a region then they’d easily win a seat under any system so – in acknowledgement of this – that party’s first placed candidate is automatically elected. If they have more than half, then their first two are automatically elected and so forth.
Votes are then summed across the nine states of Austria. Any candidate from the state-wide list who overcomes the Hare quota across a state is automatically elected. Lets take an example: a state elects 20 MPs, if 8 candidates have already been elected at the first (regional) stage then it still has 12 MPs to elect. So any party that has more than a twelfth of the votes across a state and no MP elected so far, or more than two twelfths and only one MP elected so far gets the first candidate on their state list elected. Double that number of votes and they’d get their first two MPs elected.
Finally whatever seats have not been allocated by one of the first two systems are then allocated by d’Hondt PR. As a final rule parties can only win any seats at all if they either win at least one seat in the first (regional) stage, or they win at least 4% of the vote nationwide.
The much less powerful upper house, the Federal Council, is elected indirectly by the State legislatures. There are 62 seats in all – each state elects between 3 and 11 members (depending upon their size) by closed list d’Hondt PR. Terms match the terms of the state legislatures – so they vary as the state legislatures vary between four and six years. The largest party in each state takes it in turns to head up the council for six-month intervals.
In addition there is a degree of direct democracy in Austria. Referrendums can be demanded by a third of the National Council on constitutional issues or by half the Council on any issue. Any substantive changes require a referendum. In addition any petition signed by more than 100,000 people must be considered by the National Council and a vote on it held, before any other business can take place.
Each state within Austria (there are nine) can decide for itself how it is governed. Currently all have indirectly elected governors elected by a state legislature. All have terms for the legislature of between four and six years and, whilst systems vary, most have elections by a form of PR. However, whilst Austria was envisaged as a powerfully federal state, successive governments have stripped away many of the state’s powers and now the main role of the state government is in electing the upper house.
Local government is more substantive -although Austria is a surprisingly centralised state. It consists of local councils elected by PR who in turn appoint executive officials.
How does the system work? (the practice): Austria is a model democracy.
How did we get here?: Following WW2 Austria readopted its 1924 constitution and operated a policy of political neutrality and of consensus building between the main centre-right and centre left parties. Political neutrality resembled political isolation at times, but this has changed in the last few decades and Austria joined the EU in 1994. Opinions differ sharply as to whether it should join Nato.
Consensus building also faded over time and for a while there was an intense rivalry between the main centre-left SPO and the centre-right OVP. However in the last decade there has been an alarming surge in support for the far right, particularly the Freedom Party and its breakaway faction, the BZO (who are now positioning themselves at the more moderate right-wing party, somewhere between the OVP and Freedom). The surge in both these parties’ popularity coincided with the time they were being led by the controversial figure of Jorg Haider and it remains to be seen whether his untimely death (in a car crash in late 2008) will have impacted on their success.
The result of this is a series of grand-coalitions, as the SVO and the OVP join together to keep the far-right out. As one can imagine this hasn’t been easy and breakdowns in the coalition have led to elections in 2006 and 2008. However an absence of alternatives has resulted in the coalition being resumed after each election
Who’s in charge?: The SVO-OVP coalition survives. As the dominant party in the 2008 elections the SVO appoint the Chancellor – Werner Fayman. The President Heinz Fischer, is the former SVO Chancellor and was elected by a 79% landslide in 2010.
The grand coalition has 108 seats in the National Council (SVO 57 OVP 51). The rest is made up of 34 from the Freedom Party, 21 from the BZO and 20 from the Greens.
The SVO (28) and OVP (24) dominate the Federal Council. The Freedom Party have 4 seats, the Greens 3, the Freedom Party in Carinthia (an extreme right wing party: Carinthia was Haider’s base and this party split away from the BZO when he died) has 2 and the Citizens Forum Austria (a centre-left Tyrolian independent movement) 1.
What does it look like?: Alpine. Only a quarter of it is low lying, mostly in the Danube valley.
What are the issues?: Austria has become obsessed with immigration and the idea that its national identity is being eroded – particularly by immigrants from Islamic countries. In actual fact immigration into Austria is fairly slight (net migration is only 100,000), their economic impact on the country is beneficial and the cultural impact is minimal or beneficial. However the far right parties have been very effective in scaremongering with the result that immigration has become an obsession of the right and the far right have become an obsession of the left.
A good source of impartial information is: The Austrian Independent is – as its name would suggest – an independent, English-language source of news about Austria.
A good book is: Guilty Victim – Austria from the Holocaust to Haideris a recent political history of Austria which seeks to explain the rise of the far right in terms of a failure to deal with their Nazi past. It is supposed to be quite good. Both the SPO and Freedom have brought out comic books to win over young voters. In the Freedom book ,a young kid fights an evil Turkish sultan called “Mustapha” by firing Viennese sausages at him. In the SPO book, a zombie Nazi called “Mr Poo” and his cocaine powered alien android army of “hate rappers” terrorise Austria. They both sound brilliant but I can’t find them online anywhere.
When are the next elections?: If the coalition survives elections to the National Council will be held in 2012. The President will be elected in 2015.