A Clear Parliamentary Majority Needed – But What For?

23 06 2008

The Current Austrian Political Crisis can be Solved by Changing the Electoral System, Conservatives Argue – News Analysis

Photo: Proponents of the Initiative Mehrheitswahlrecht at a press conference at Presseclub Concordia, April 24, 2008. Heinrich Neisser seated in the center.

Throughout April and May 2008, some of the predominantly Conservative Austrian political elite, led by the Initiative Mehrheitswahlrecht (Initiative Majority Voting System) and its chairman Heinrich Neisser and ventilated by the Conservative daily Die Presse, reopened a public debate with a proposed change of the Austrian electoral system for general elections.

Ever since the country has a new Grand Coalition between the Socialdemocrats (SPÖ) and the Conservative ÖVP since January 2007, critical voices not only from its opposition but also within both parties voiced their doubts on the effectiveness of the current government, which regularly seems to disintegrate and at the verge of collapse.

Neisser, former Conservative MP and Second President of the Austrian Parliament, as well as other influential proponents of the committee, including former ORF General Intendant Gerd Bacher, Socialdemocratic Historian Norbert Leser and Profil-Columnist Peter Michael Lingens, believe that a clear parliamentary single-party majority is essential for a stable government, able to tackle the critical problems, like healthcare and pension reforms, or a the overhaul of the Austrian Constitution.

The current grand coalition government, led by Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (Socialdemocrats) and Vice Chancellor Wilhem Molterer (Conservatives), though supported with a large parliamentary support of almost 70% – the SPÖ gained 35.3 % and ÖVP gained 34.3 % of the votes in the October 2006 General Elections and jointly they are able to push though constitutional changes for which a 2/3 majority is needed – however, in the eyes of the Initiative, it has not seriously touched on any of those projects so far since in power in January 2007.

In a press conference, held at the Presseclub Concordia on April 24, Gerd Bacher referred to the government’s overall performance that “within the history of quadriplegic grand coalitions, the currently is the worst of its kind.” Consequently, the proponents blame the current situation on the electoral system, which brought, in their view, no clear a result, but instead limited coalition options, forcing parties from the contrary political spectrum into one government.

Therefore, the Initiative strongly proposed for the proportional electoral system to be abolished and a voting system based on personal representation, as in the United States or Great Britain, should be introduced.

The Initiative’s manifesto, published also on the Internet, states that they aim for the realization of a “personality oriented and minority-friendly majority voting system” by which all five political parties represented in the Austrian Parliament today would still be present. However, there is no specific reference as to how this “protected species regulation” for the smaller parties, as Gerd Bacher provocatively termed it, should be realized in practice.

“It is important that all parties, whether useful or not – and in my understanding most are, however, useless – remain (in Parliament),” he added.

The press conference was only one of the events surrounding the public debate. Earlier that month, on April 2, Die Presse and the Industriellenvereinigung (Federation of Austrian Industry) started a new series of public debates under the title of Aufbrüche. Diskussionen zur Zukunft Österreichs (Departure. Discussions on the future of Austria). The provocative motto for this evening’s opening of the series, held at the palace-like Haus der Industrie at Schwarzenbergplatz, was, whether the majority voting system for Austria might be a way out of the current political crisis (Mehrheitswahlrecht für Österreich – Aufbruch aus der Krise?).

What political crisis, I keep asking myself while I enter the building and make my way up the marble staircase, covered with a red carpet. The building, erected in the early 20th century in 17th-century architecture, displayed the seriousness and elegance to engage in a deep political debate.

I made my way up to the Grosser Festsaal, and at the foyer preceding the grand hall, a buffet was prepared but still covered for the cocktail reception that would follow thereafter. When I entered the Festsaal just after 6.00 pm, the hall appeared rather like an elegant but fanciful ballroom in its 17th-century recreated golden statues and stucco.

The panel, located at the long-side of the hall in black leather chairs, two large LCD screens were placed on both ends, and the audience chairs were grouped around the scenery in a semi-circle to encourage a debate.

Although I was well in time and the audience ready by 6.30 pm, the organizers kept the packed audience of about 300 members of the public in suspense for the academic quarter, when finally the proponents of the debate, Josef Cap, Parliamentary Leader of the Socialdemocrats, Günter Stummvoll, MP for the ÖVP and Speaker for Financial Affairs to the left as political representatives.

Opposite on the right, academia was represented by Political Scientist Sonja Punscher Riekmann and Gerhard Strejcek, Professor for Public Law and specialist in electoral systems. The debate was skillfully moderated by Michael Fleischhacker, Editor-in-Chief of Die Presse, representing the organizers.

For readers of the Die Presse, the personal opinion of Fleischhacker in favor of an electoral system based on majority voting was already evident prior to the event, published prominently in some of his editorials, claiming that the current political structure favors the political parties that “instead of transparent control establish a balance of terror.” Parties inevitable aim to control and influence all apparatuses of a state for their own ends, he argued in February 2008.

Before the debate got rolling on tha tevening, though for most stretches it was rather calm and uninspired two hours, we are informed that we have a chance to vote on the electoral system via SMS.

Fleischhacker opened with a joke that for any public event, oranizers usually reminded the audience to switch off their mobile phones to avoid any disturbance. “However, tonight,” he added, “we ask you to kep them switched on so that you can cast your vote.” There will be two opportunities, so the instructions, to indicate whether you would like for Austria to change its electoral system to a majority voting or not.

The first round was held at the beginning of the debate while the second one was scheduled at the end to see whether the arguments had an effect on the result. While some of the audience took the opportunity for EUR 0.30 per SMS to cast our vote, the debate got on its way with the two politicians present.

Interesting for the audience was that none of the two MPs, who represent Austria’s largest political parties, were in favor of a personal representation a la Great Britain. Stummvoll even admitted having had “catharsis” on the issue at hand, having strongly supported a dramatic change in the 1980s and 1990s. Election results, however, like the General Elections in the UK in 2005, where the ruling Labour Party earned with only 35.3% of the votes cast a comfortable governing majority, while the Tory opposition with 32.2% lost out, made him change his mind.

“English proportions, where a government is elected with one-fifth (of the total electorate), that cannot be it in democratic-political terms.”

Cap seconded that although single-party governments can be highly successful, like those led in the past by Socialdemocratic Chancellor Bruno Kreisky from 1970 to 1983, the attraction of a multi-party situation “allows for duscussion.” But not to be confused with disputes, as Cap argued, where “every discussion (between the current government parties, for example) is labeled as an argument.”

At that point, a graph flashed up on the LCD screens with the result of the SMS voting; it seem to confirm the worst possible scenario an electoral system based on persona representation could have: Only 34 persons cast their vote, of which 29 were in favor and five opposed a switch to majority voting. I admit not having cast my vote then.

Sonja Punscher Riekmann, former Green Party MP and now a political scientist and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Salzburg, warns of the high expectations of a majority based electoral system, when she said that “it will become difficult to present new political ideas. One aims to change a crisis situation by changing the rule of the game.”

She also rejects also Fleischhacker’s argument of a greater democratic potential with lack of influence for political parties

“Democracy needs organization,” hinting also at the organization of the primary season in the United States for determining a presidential candidate. Rather, “a majority based electoral system would do little to democratize the parties.”

Nevertheless, Punscher Riekmann argued that the current proportional based system needs adaptations of including strengthening the election of personalities.

Contrary to the majority of the of speakers , Gerhard Strejcek contested the views expressed by the politicians on the podium and warned that the Austrian democracy “although works well, it might die of its crustification.” He opposed an immediate change of electoral system, nevertheless a change in the electoral system is necessary as clear election results enable “answers to pestering questions of our time.”

Interesting in this debate was the interaction between Cap and Stummvoll in that debate. Both are routined parliamentarians who have worked side-by-side or opposed each other in the past 20 years. So, they were fairly relaxed and informal in the debate, and found a few opportunities to jokle about their experiences.

For example, when the debate focussed of strenthening the personal representation within the electoral system by Vorzugsstimmen (preferential votes for a candidate), Michael Fleischhacker pointed cheekily at Cap and suggested that “you apparently successfully made it once it”, meaning he got enough preferential votes to be ranked higher up for a Socialdemocrat seat in parliament.

Cap with a playful outraged countered “Why apparently?!,” who outed himself as am enthusiastic Presse reader, as this newspaper “as it makes appetite for politics.” Indeed, Josef Cap received 62,457 preferential votes in the general elections 1983, after having challenged then Chancellor Bruno Kreisky with his legendary ‘three questions” denouncing corruption and privileges within his own party.

As the debate was opened to the public, the audience evidently lost interest in the discussion as more and more people left the event and seek refuge at the lavish buffet outside. Nevertheless, those who stayed on had a chance to cast a vote the second time for EUR 0.30 per SMS, on whether to change the Austrian electoral system.

This time, I decided to join in the vote, and I picked up my phone, typed my preference and clicked ‘send’ – with no avail: my SMS did not go through for ‘technical reasons’ though I had sent it within the the given time frame.

So, when the second result flashed on the LCD screens, the number of participants of that poll had dropped to 24, the five votes opposed to the majority voting remained steady, while 19 persons voted in favour of a change. For the organizers, this evidently was a failure in mobilization, which Fleischhacker laconically commented as “voting fatigue” by the audience.

Over the informal buffet, a few members of the audience voiced their doubts that the Austrian electorate would accept a majority voting system, and referred to the SMS voting as charade.

While enjoying the small Schnitzel and some Austrian wine, one elderly person questioned on the validity of the second poll results, as this result might have been rigged.

“The screen came up a few minutes before the official result was announced, and there were quite a few more votes opposing the majority voting system than the so-called final result showed.” I admitted, as I had followed the debate on the podium closely, I did not pay any attention to the screens.

Though we both agreed, the SMS voting was possibly the dispensable element of that debate, as it did neither sensitize nor mobilize the audience for or against this controversial issue. Rathermore, when I left across Schwarzenbergplatz, that much wider political debate is needed to tackle voting abstinence, instead of engaging in a technical debate on electoral systems.

This is an excerpt, the full article will be published in July 2008 in The Vienna Review.




3 responses

25 06 2008
Schufa Kredit - Online Kredite günstig » Blog Archive » Wenn ich Alfred Gusenbauer wäre….

[…] längst an der Zeit das Handtuch zu nehmen und Platz für jüngere und agilere Menschen in der Politik zu […]

25 06 2008

sollte sich endlich aus dem politischen Geschehen zurückziehen. Niemand braucht nach Schüssel einen weiteren nichtssager.

4 07 2008
Admit 2 » Blog Archive » A Clear Parliamentary Majority Needed – But What for?

[…] A Clear Parliamentary Majority Needed – But What for? Earlier that month, on April 2, Die Presse and the Industriellenvereinigung (Federation of Austrian Industry) started a new series of public debates under the title of Aufbrüche. Diskussionen zur Zukunft Österreichs (Departure. … […]

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