Direct democracy: high time for democratic emancipation

Direct democracy

What about the development of democracy in Austria? What options does man or woman have to be heard? Is it done giving a ballot every few years? Is that all that democracy has to offer? Does it deserve the name democracy - that is, "rule of the people"?

While in the years from 2011 to 2013 - in pre-election periods mind you - experts, media, citizens' initiatives and politicians have led a rarely fruitful and well-founded discourse on the development and expansion of direct democracy, the democratic debate in this country has become comparatively quiet lately. Thus, in the current government program, only the declaration of intent at the beginning of 2014 convenes an enquete commission in the National Council. That it does not exist yet, should not surprise us for now.

"After the government's decision, voters are told that the compromise they found is their own will because they have given their votes to certain parties."
Erwin Mayer, spokesman for "mehr demokratie".

Direct democracy
Direct democracy


What's up with the debate on direct democracy in Austria? We live in a functioning democracy - do not we? In contrast to politics, the Austrian constitution has very clear words. Article 1 of the Federal Constitution states: "Austria is a democratic republic. Their right comes from the people. "On closer inspection, however, there are legitimate doubts. For political life often looks a little different. It is shaped by the party politics, in which the party welfare is given priority over the common good. Every day we observe how club compulsion, individual and special interests, client politics and lobbyists win over the actual electoral will. Before elections one is showered with all sorts of party programs, vague politician statements and campaign slogans. Political projects can be guessed at best. In the fewest cases one learns concretely, which positions the parties will take after the elections. The final government program is hatched behind closed doors. "After the decision of the government program, voters are told that the compromise they have found is their own will, because they have given their votes to certain parties," said Erwin Mayer, spokesman for "more democracy".
It is the intransparent and inconsistent democratic practice that leads to increasing political disenchantment in Austria. Or is it rather a politician idleness?

Direct democracy
Direct democracy

Direct democracy: desire for participation

While voter turnout sometimes falls and political parties barely manage to recruit new members, civic engagement is flourishing. Whether it is politics, sport, social issues or culture - more and more people get involved publicly and free of charge. The most recent Austria-wide survey of volunteer engagements from the year 2008 showed that 44 do percent of 15 volunteer work. Around 1,9 millions of Austrians are in clubs or organizations - after all, that's more than a third of the 15-year-olds.
Parliamentary Citizens' Initiatives - which allow citizen groups from 500 to propose to the National Council for federal legislation or the implementation of existing laws - have increased by 2000 percent since the year 250. Significantly increased since the 1980er years, the number of referendums and referendums at country and community level. The Austrian political scientists Sieglinde Rosenberger and Gilg Seeber state: "For Austria, a temporal connection between party disaffection, declining turnout and the growing use of direct-democratic instruments can be stated." In the past ten years alone, there have been ten citizens' initiatives on the topic of democracy development which have drafted numerous reform proposals for the further development of Austrian democracy.

With politics?

In view of these figures, one can hardly deny the population's interest in politics. Rather, confidence in politicians is at a historic low. For example, a study by the Social Science Study Society revealed that public confidence in public institutions such as the judiciary, police, or 2012 unions has risen slightly. On the other hand, 46 percent of 1.100 respondents indicated that politicians had lost touch with citizens and 38 percent were convinced that they were only for their own benefit. A similar survey was conducted by the Austrian Marketing Association (OGM) in the year 2013. 78 percent of 500 respondents said that they have little or no trust in politics.

Direct democracy in Austria?

By definition, direct democracy is a process or political system in which the voting population votes directly on political issues. Gertraud Diendorfer, Managing Director of the Democracy Center Vienna, understands the Direct Democracy as "an addition, corrective or control instrument of the representative democracy system:" Direct democratic instruments, which are enshrined in the constitution, allow citizens to participate in elections, even in specific issues directly influence the policy to take ".

The only drawback: The result of the classic instruments of direct democracy - such as referendums or referendum - is in no way binding and thus more or less at the mercy of the political decision-makers in the National Council. Only the referendum leads to a legally binding decision of the people. However, only the National Council can decide whether to hold a referendum or not. Citizens' initiatives or petitions, as provided for in the Rules of Procedure of the National Council, can only be used to present specific requests for treatment to the National Council.

On closer inspection, our instruments for direct democracy turn out to be relatively toothless overall. For Gerhard Schuster, the spokesman for the “Stop sham democracy!” Initiative, there is currently no way for referendums to take place if the proposals submitted to the National Council through referendums are not passed in parliament.

In view of the poorly developed and neglected opportunities for public participation, which in the best case allows us to express our will to political decision-makers, it is not surprising that only about 55 percent of Austrians are satisfied with the way democracy works. Two thirds are even in favor of expanding to direct democracy, as the OGM's “Democracy Report 2013” ​​shows.

Direct Democracy: Instruments in Austria

petition allow the citizen to initiate a legislative procedure in parliament, but unfortunately it is in no way binding. Little wonder, then, that only five of the 37 petitions carried out so far in Austria were successful in the sense that they actually led to a law.

referendums are the youngest direct democratic instrument in Austria. They serve the national council to obtain the opinion of the population. No more, because even the result of referendums committed to nothing. Although it must be noted that the National Council has so far never exceeded the majority result of a referendum.

Last but not least will be referendums prescribed from above. They allow the population to vote directly on constitutional and federal draft laws, and here their decision is binding. However, a referendum can only be done on an already completed bill. But if a simple bill has already found a majority in the National Council, according to the Vienna Democracy Center it is unlikely that enough votes will be found that would be needed to start a referendum.

In addition, the Rules of Procedure of the National Council still shows Petitions and citizens' initiatives on. With the help of these instruments, parliamentarians (petitioners) and citizens (citizens' initiatives) can submit concrete requests for treatment.

More direct democracy, but how?

The question remains, how direct democracy could work better? How can Austria live up to its constitutional principle so that the law actually emanates from the people?
Numerous citizens' initiatives have already devoted themselves to this question, drafting reform proposals and making clear demands on politicians. Essentially, the concepts for the further development of democracy are based on two key points: First, referendums must be accompanied by a legally binding referendum. And secondly, citizens must be able to contribute to the development and formulation of laws.

One way in which Direct Democracy could look like is the initiative "People's legislation now!". About a three-stage process, consisting of popular initiative, referendum and referendum.
In contrast to the current legal system, citizens actually have the option of adopting a law or a political directive.
While the focus of the popular initiative is on the presentation of the idea, the population is in the context of the subsequent referendum on the social relevance of the initiative.
The quantitative hurdles provided for in this process fulfill an important filter function: Initiatives that are not majority-enabled - that is, pursue only individual or special interests or are simply too technical, the hurdle of 300.000 signatures will not create and thus "filtered out" ,

A central role in this proposal also the media, because they would have to ensure via a media council that takes place in the three months before the referendum a free and equal discussion on pros and cons in the mass media.

Schuster sees the great advantage of this complementary system in the two pillars of the legislation, which, while working together, are nevertheless independent of each other. The people's will does not compete with parliamentarism, but supplements it with a hitherto neglected component: the people.

Proposal for three-stage legislation in Austria from the “People's legislation now!” Initiative

popular initiative (1 Level) 30.000 Citizens (against 100.000, which currently requires a referendum) present a draft bill or policy to the National Council. The National Council deliberates on the initiative and must recruit three persons authorized by the initiative's sponsors. If rejected by the National Council, a referendum may be initiated.

petition (2 stage) Prior to the registration week, each household will be notified with the wording of the request. From 300.000 supports the referendum is successful and leads to the referendum. At least three months before the referendum, equal and comprehensive information and discussion about pros and cons will take place in the mass media.

referendum (3 level) The majority decides.

Direct Democracy - Conclusion

Direct democracy is not only a hot topic in Austria. For example, in the so-called Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, it also states that high participation rates and procedures that only produce consultative effects should be avoided in principle. Similar to electoral procedures, voters must also be able to see, in factual votes, a clear link between their participation and the outcome.

In this way, it should be possible for the population to have more say and actively shape and co-determine their future. Direct democracy thus leads to greater legitimacy of the results of political processes and increases or creates a willingness to support political decisions.

Photo / Video: Gernot Singer, nun, Option media.

Written by Veronika Janyrova


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  1. As long as the lion's share of all laws are passed by the parliamentary groups and in this way inhuman-suffering-exploitative centered, i.e. counterhumanist and anti-democratic lobbying, the system (“the emperor's new clothes”) must not be called “democracy” in purely logical and linguistic terms will. The Hegelian-dialectical-arbitrary discourse and compromise system, which is also based on the democracy narrative, is anyway only "crack and speed for the people" and, for example, in no way suitable for crisis management, which requires maxima, no consensus. A new “correct” and “humanistic” system requires two kinds of legislature: 1. real (direct) democracy for the social context and 2. the executive of the natural law dictation for the living space context.

  2. As long as the lion's share of all laws are passed by the parliamentary groups (and, among other things, in this way misanthropic-suffering-exploitative, i.e. counter-humanist and anti-democratic lobbyism is given scope), the system ("the emperor's new clothes") must not be " Democracy "because" ... kratie "refers to the legislative power. The Hegelian-dialectical-arbitrary discourse and compromise system, which is also based on the democracy narrative, is anyway only "crack and speed for the people" and, for example, in no way suitable for crisis management, which requires maxima, no consensus. A new “correct” and “humanistic” system requires two kinds of legislature: 1. real (direct) democracy for the social context and 2. the executive of the natural law dictate for the living space context.

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