zur normalen Ansicht

Topics > Democracy Debates > Elections 


The poster comes from a series of poster designs, an initiative of Austrian advertising agencies and media aimed at increasing voting in elections, 1993-1994
© Dr. Bernd Dresen / ACC

Democracy Reform
Discussions on a reform of the rules of the game, the processes and structures of democracy, are a part of the democratic system, an intrinsic part: The propositions for change that grow out of debates on the form of democracy are often indicative of the quality of a political system.

The themes discussed can refer to a multitude of questions regarding fundamental principles, organisation or structure. Themes that always crop up are the relationship of citizen and state, that of power and control, the political parties, possibilities of participation

Traditionally of great significance in the debate are suggestions for change in the existing right to vote and in the laws that govern this. They touch the "heart" of the democratic system – elections, after all, are an indispensable component of a democratic order and are a central and constitutive element of the democratic process.

Electoral Reform 2007
The rules on conducting elections, on participation in elections and thus on the existing options open to individual participants, also on the allocation of mandates (seats), are all set down in the electoral law. According to the Austrian constitution, elections to the Austrian National Council (the first and legislatively decisive chamber of the Austrian Parliament), to the European Parliament, to the Regional [Land] Parliaments and District [Gemeinde] Councils must all be based on equal, direct, secret and personal suffrage and proportional representation; the election to the Austrian Federal Presidency takes the form of a direct vote. Closer details on the holding of National Council, Regional, District or European elections are set down in their own electoral laws or ordinances.

At the beginning of June 2007, in keeping with the governing program of the coalition of the Social Democrats and the Austrian People’s Party, a reform of the existing electoral law was passed at the federal level in the National Council, and this was first put into effect in September 2008.

As a result of the electoral reform, comprehensive changes took place in the National Council Electoral Ordinance 1992, in the law for the election of the Federal President, in the European Electoral Law, the Plebiscite Law 1972, the Public Opinion Poll Law 1989, the Voter Registry Law 1973 and the European Voter Registry Law; also affected by the reform was the Austrian Federal Constitution.

Cornerstones of the Electoral Reform are:
→ lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years
→ lowering the age of eligibility for office from 19 to 18 years. Candidates for the office of President of the Federal Republic must however still be at least 35 years old.
→ introducing postal voting inside Austria
→ simplifying the procedure of postal voting outside the country
→ lengthening the legislative period of the National Council from four to five years.

Lowering the voting age
In lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, primarily called for by the Social Democrats, Austria became a "European pioneer." In the rest of Europe, voters must be, without exception, 18 years old. Only in Brasil, Cuba and Nicaragua can 16-year-olds vote; in North Korea and the Seychelles, it is possible to vote at 17. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15.3.2007).

The voting age was also lowered to 16 in recent years in various federal regions in Austrian. 16-year-olds could already vote before the electoral reform of 2007 in Salzburg, Vienna and Burgenland, in district councils in Burgenland, Carinthia, Steiermark, Salzburg and Vienna, where district council (or municipal) elections are also regional elections. On the basis of the "homogeneity principle", the other regions now have to follow suit. From now on, regions may decide independently on the electoral law for regional parliament and district council elections but may "not make the conditions for voting and standing for election any narrower than that set down in the Federal Constitution for elections to the National Council" (Kleine Zeitung, May 2, 2007). Individual regions have already followed suit; thus in the spring of 2008 (after the regional elections in Vienna and in Burgenland 2005), 16-year-olds took part for the first time in the regional elections in Tirol.

Introduction of the Postal Vote
With the introduction of the postal vote, long called for by the Austrian People’s Party, voting could take place outside the voting booth. For this it is necessary to apply for a voting card from the local district office. The completed ballot paper and a solemn declaration, stating that the official ballot was filled out personally, unobserved and uninfluenced, can then be sent by post to the voting authority. Postal votes are allowed in nine other European countries, among them Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Great Britain and Spain (Der Standard, May 2, 2007).

Persons who are Austrian citizens, but do not live inside the Republic of Austria have been able, since 1990, to take part in the National Council elections by means of voting cards. The electoral reform made it easier for them to cast their votes. Here too a solemn declaration suffices as proof of personal and voluntary ballot-casting. Furthermore, Austrians abroad can order a 10-year subscription for voting cards.

Lengthening the legislative period to five years
The electoral reform has lengthened the legislative period from four to five years. In the European Union, a five-year legislative period is rare; the term of office of parliament in 20 of 27 member countries is four years. Inside Austria at the level of the regional governments the general legislative period is five years, except in Upper Austria where there is a six-year term of office. The district councils too have largely five-year legislative periods; only in Carinthia, Upper Austria and Tirol does the district council election take place every six years. The Austrian Federal President is elected every six years (Der Standard, 2.5.2007).

No voting without citizenship
Untouched by the electoral reform of 2007 was the fundamental situation whereby Austrian citizenship is necessary for participation in elections in Austria. Persons who are not Austrian citizens are excluded in Austria not only from National Council elections but also regional elections and presidential elections. As a result of Austria’s joining the EU in 1995, EU-citizens in Austria have voting rights at the local level and also the right to stand as candidates. Residents who do not come from EU-States do not have this either of these rights and are thus excluded from any possibility of basic political participation.

In December 2002, the Viennese Regional Parliament did resolve to allow non-citizens of the EU to vote in local elections but the appeal against this, brought jointly by the Austrian Freedom Party and the People’s Party, was upheld by the Administrative Court. In its verdict of 30 June 2004, the Constitutional Court abolished the "foreigner right to vote" giving as grounds its contravention of the "principle of homogeneity" that requires a uniform right to vote.

There was a variety of reactions to the reform of the electoral law of 2007 in its various parts: While all parties, that is, also the Greens, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and the Austrian Freedom Party, welcomed the lowering of the voting age as increasing the chances of citizen participation, the lengthening of the legislative period and the introduction of the postal vote attracted much criticism. It was maintained that the lengthening of the legislative period meant a reduction in participation options and less citizen involvement. On the part of the government, it was argued that they would have longer to work instead of fighting election campaigns. On average, however, Austrian governments have not even lasted the four years previously in effect.

Constitutional lawyers are sceptical above all about the introduction of the postal vote. For their part, they fear that it will be easier to manipulate balloting this way, and the principle of the "secret ballot" will be endangered.

Further suggestions for reform: Proportional representation versus majority vote
The – constantly repeated – discussion of the advantages of majority vote can be viewed as a consequence of the long-drawn-out efforts to form governments in recent years. The main advantage ascribed to the majority vote system is that it allows the speedy formation of stable majorities, while the system of proportional representation proceeds from the basic idea of allowing representation in parliament for a wide political spectrum and consequently political representation for small parties. A transition from constitutionally guaranteed proportional representation to a majority vote system is hardly to be expected but discussion of an electoral law that would aid the forming of majorities is a "classic" of democracy-reform debate in the Second Republic.

Maria Wirth
(Last Update 10/2008)

© Demokratiezentrum Wien

Demokratiezentrum Wien
Hegelgasse 6 / 5, A - 1010 Wien
Tel.: +43 / 1 / 512 37 37, Fax.: +43 / 1 / 512 37 37-20