Crash Course in Euro-Democracy

How Austria’s Proportional Parliament Really Works

Austria’s federal elections have come and gone, and members of the English-speaking community are asking themselves:  What exactly does all this mean?

If you’ve grown up in England, the USA or Canada, you are probably used to a slightly different kind of democracy.  The most obvious difference is the lack of a so-called “first past the post” system—meaning that the winner only requires a plurality, rather than a majority, of the popular votes.  In such a system, a party is allowed to form a government because it receives the most voter districts, essentially taking the whole cake.

Austria’s government on the other hand is a proportional democracy—the percentage of votes given a party by the whole electorate decides how many seats they get in parliament.

Since Austria’s SPÖ got 35.7% of the popular vote, it will receive 68 out of the 183 seats available in parliament.  In theory that percentage is only 66 seats.  However since two of the parties running in the election didn’t make it into the parliament, the rest of the seats were divided up among those who did.

There are certain advantages and disadvantages to these systems.  While the plurality system allows for strong governments, popular sentiment is not necessarily represented, as was the case in the USA in 2000.

On the other hand, while proportional democracies do represent what people want in a fairer way, it can leave the government relatively weak and the opposition stronger, as is the case in Germany and could well be the case in Austria, where the SPÖ has only a 1.5% lead over the ÖVP.

Austria, like any other democracy, has a relatively complex system of checks and balances—where the different branches of government have implicit and explicit powers, which allow them to pass and enact laws so long as the other branches allow it to happen.  This is designed so that one single branch of government does not become too powerful.

A bi-cameral assembly—the Bundesrat and the Nationalrat, forms Austria’s parliament.  The Nationalrat, or National Assembly, is what recent elections were held for.  This is the body that makes Austria’s laws, and is presided over by the Chancellor, who is the leader of the majority party.  The national assembly is supposed to strive for transparence, and therefore most sessions are open to the public.

The Bundesrat, or Federal Council, is composed of representatives from each of Austria’s nine provinces.  It operates in tandem with the National assembly to ensure that local interests are not overlooked when making national laws.  It can also propose laws, and has the power to suspend as well as veto certain laws that have local effects.

The chancellor, as head of government, must sign all laws that are passed by the parliament.  However, the post brings with it a great deal of control because it is the chancellor’s job to appoint ministers.  Wolfgang Schuessel has been chancellor of Austria for six years.  Since his party did not win the Oct. 1 elections, he will step down from this post around Christmas, when a new government is formed.

The chancellor is not, however, the head of state.  That is the job of the president, who is elected every six years.  The current president is Heinz Fischer (SPÖ), and though his job is largely ceremonial, as he represents Austria internationally, he does have certain important powers.

The president may dismiss the cabinet or dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections.  This power is checked however by a joint session of Parliament which can call for his impeachment.  The president, unlike the chancellor, has the power to veto a law, and it is their job to create a cabinet together.

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