Austria has just weathered a government crisis and will hold new elections on 29 September. Two of our member organisations, More Democracy! Austria and the IG-EuroVision, launched an initiative ahead of the election in order to stimulate the discussion about the future of democracy in Austria. Caroline Vernaillen spoke with Gerhard Schuster.
The full initiative can be found here.
CV: Austria is on the verge of early elections. Before we get started and talk about your democracy campaign, can you briefly tell us what happened to trigger the elections?
GS: Okay. Let me just think, there's been a lot going on over the last few months. It all started in the middle of May with the Ibiza video. The Süddeutsche Zeitung and Spiegel online brought it to light. The video shows our then Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPÖ indulging in corrupt power fantasies with the supposed niece of a Russian oligarch. I'm sure everyone saw it. Strache has to resign, the coalition collapses, new elections are called and finally the remaining government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz receives a vote-of-no-confidence from the ÖVP in Parliament. Events have flahed by and a party-independent transitional government was formed under Brigitte Bierlein. So now we have the first woman in the Chancellery.
CV: A lot going on in Austria ...
GS: ... and it is also exciting that Parliament has immediately begun to pass laws with all forces in the free play, as it is called here, i.e. with changing majorities, where they previously could not find a majority in the constraints of the coalition. At long last, the smoking ban in restaurants, previously blocked by the FPÖ was passed. Nearly 900,000 signatures were collected in a petition for a referendum on this last autumn. The protection of water, i.e. a ban on privatisation, was enshrined in the constitution, glyphosate was banned, party donations were limited and many other things were implemented. A brief moment of living parliamentary democracy.
CV: Right, and in this situation you have started an initiative in Austria. You're collecting signatures for a petition under the name "Initiative for Complementary Democracy".
GS: That's right. We have campainged for a long time for direct democracy in Austria and now we - our association IG-EuroVision - are running a joint initiative with More Democracy! Austria and with the support of Democracy International. I am very happy about this cooperation. Joining forces and working together!
CV: You say you're working towards direct democracy. But now you are talking about "complementary democracy". What is the difference?
GS: It's actually quite simple. It is about supplementing representative democracy with, what I always call, an adequate process of direct democracy. So it is also about direct democracy, but we want to stress that it is about introducing a second pillar.
CV: A second pillar beside parliamentarianism.
GS: We want to look at democracy as a whole. We want to show that an exclusively representative system, a purely parliamentary system, is not yet fully legitimate. When we vote, we give a mandate to people. To the best of their knowledge and belief, they should pass laws in parliament on the basis of that free mandate. But the elections do not yet give a mandate for the concrete content of what they decide. This is not even possible! Because the people who stand for election compete in parties and present entire election programmes with positions on a wide variety of topics. In terms of content, it is an all-inclusive package. Then these parties enter into coalitions and make compromises. It is therefore actually impossible that an election would make it clear what the majority of voters want in the case of any specific decision. Elections alone do not give a mandate for any given individual, specific decision, for that citizens would need veto power.
CV: Can you explain that a little more? What exactly does "veto power" mean?
GS: The veto power, so to speak, exists in a strucutral sense when the second pillar in democracy exists: when an adequate process of direct-democratic decision-making exists and can be activated from by every single member of the community. This means that if the citizens have the opportunity to launch a citizens' initiative, which, with sufficient support, needs to be treated by parliament and, in case parliament refuses to treat it, leads to a binding referendum.
If a citizens' initiative is strong enough, it is confirmed by direct democracy and will have repealed or supplemented a parliamentary resolution, or even have introduced something completely new into law. If an initiative is not strong enough or if no initiative is taken at all, then the people agree with what the parliament has decided. That is the citizens’ veto.
CV: And so these are the two pillars that must be there in order to speak of democracy as a whole.
GS: Yes, and once you have really thought about it, it is clear that we cannot yet speak of a fully realised democracy as long as we have only parliamentarianism or as long as direct-democratic instruments are still inadequate. We see this from the essential concept of democracy: Full legitimacy is only given if democracy is based on two pillars. This is one of the reasons why we speak of complementary democracy.
CV: That's interesting. But I wonder if people aren't much more drawn by other topics? Many existential questions are very powerful: The climate crisis or the protection of species diversity, using the example of the referendum in Bavaria or the ban on smoking in Austria, for which, as you said, there was a great deal of support. People just want to have a say. Are people really interested in such almost philosophical questions as how our democracy is structured?
GS: Of course, in the end it is also about these burning questions that you have mentioned! And it's also about the feeling that it can't be that I can only vote every 4 or 5 years and then afterwards have to remain silent again. We also talk about it with people when we are on the street collecting signatures, but we also emphasize this inner essence of democracy. I don't know what the big crowdpleasers are in terms of topics, but I do know that it was these questions of the essence of democracy that made me active more than 20 years ago.
So I feel the pull in the idea of democracy itself. This idea is a shining star. It is based on the idea of human emancipation, which we as humanity have been struggling for centuries to achieve, step by step, not only in the democratic, but also in our spiritual-cultural life and also in the economy. In the beginning there was a pharaoh and then the pope and emperor and today we have, at least in parts of the world, a free exchange of ideas, we have parliaments, which we at least elect, but we also still have industrial power and a strong rule of money. There are still many tasks ahead of us in the great emancipation project of mankind and here I mean that we cannot do without clear concepts of democracy and its aspects.
CV: So you don't think that's too abstract an approach? An initiative to save bees is more concrete!
GS: I think it is great that these examples exist in places where there are already possibilities. But there is also this other side. I am convinced that we will only reach our goal in a truly sustainable way when this star of democracy is seen. When we have recognized democracy in its essence. Let me go back a little: We already have elements of direct democracy in our constitution in Austria. We have the referendum, which is actually the first stage of bringing an initiative with a legislative proposal to Parliament. The National Council then has to deal with it, but afterwards nothing happens. It is completely non-binding. And we also have the referendum in the Austrian Constitution, but this is either obligatory, in the case of so-called overall changes to the constitution - this has only been the case with Austria's accession to the EU. The second possibility is for the National Council to hold a referendum on a law that has already been passed by parliament. In the history of Austria, that was once the case, in 1978, with the commissioning of a nuclear power plant, which was not connected to the grid when it was completed. These two rights, the right of initiative and the right to vote in a referendum, have existed in Austria since 1920. And in the Second Republic there were precisely these two referendums and from 1964 until today, over 40 petitions for a referendum. But the weakness is that the right of initiative is not linked to the right to vote. And there have been proposals to resolve this deficiency since the 1950s. For more than 60 years, there have been proposals that the initiatives should also be able to reach a referendum; From all parties, good and less good proposals. Either concretely submitted motions in parliament or as promises during election campaign. A few years ago there was a commission of enquiry on the subject, where many sessions were discussed in parliament. I was working on it then, too. The last government also had this issue in its coalition agreement. Yet nothing has happened to date. If you try for 60 years to fill a barrel without a bottom with water and then someone comes and says: "That's not a real barrel yet, if it has no bottom," maybe something will click for the people involved Maybe they will build the bottom into the barrel and all of a sudden it will be possible to fill it. That is my thesis: If enough people really realize that democracy has two pillars by its nature, then they will no longer discuss whether it is good or bad, whether people are ready for it or not, whether the death penalty will then come back – these arguments that have always been the same through the last decades. But if it is really understood, then you have to say to yourself, yes, if we as a modern society do not want to be patronized, then democracy means complementary democracy with a representative and with a direct-democratic pillar.
CV: That makes sense, but is Parliament not afraid that it will then lose its power?
GS: The parties may be afraid. Their goal is usually just to get elected to form the government. The poles of power in Austria today are no different from those in Germany and many other countries. The idea of the separation of powers is actually that we distinguish between the executive and legislative branches. The executive, i.e. the government, implements the laws that have been passed by parliament - and in future also by the people directly. In practice, however, Parliament is now the extended arm of the government. Only in such exceptional situations, where we suddenly have a non-party government - as actually provided for in the Austrian constitution - do we suddenly experience a lively parliamentarianism. So now our initiative fits really well! Because if laws are created by the people and no longer only from the government and the party constellations, then a government will be able to experience itself in the serving role of executing the laws as it has in principle. That would also strengthen Parliament! That is why we are also talking about strengthening democracy as a whole.
CV: Now we have gotten very deeply into matters, let us finally come to the initiative and your campaing. What are you proposing specifically?
GS: With pleasure. So we have several elements in our campaign. One is a pledge action. We give the party candidates the opportunity to make a promise to engage in a substantial and in-depth discussion about strengthening democracy. And we combine this promise with the opportunity to comment on the concrete proposal we are making for the design of the second pillar.
We are proposing a three-stage process of popular legislation. Citizens’ petition, a citizens’ initiative and a referendum. With appropriate hurdles and a few guidelines regarding the design. You can read about that. What is also very important to us is the media condition. In the period before the referendum, equal and comprehensive information and discussion of the pros and cons should be ensured. We want to write this into our constitution in the same way. This obliges the traditional media and also the platforms of social networks to fulfil this social function for the democratic process.
CV: The proposal and campaign can be found on your website.
GS: Right, you can find it there, but there is also a need for research on how this can be arranged in detail. We are proposing a new democratic body, a Media Council, which will shape and enforce this equal communication.
So this is the pledge action for the candidates and the concrete proposal. Then we have another petition. What is at stake here is the idea of complementary democracy and the demand for a broad discussion on it. We collect signatures online and on the street. We are building up our dome with the European Public Sphere project and we have many very good conversations with the people. We try to get a lot going with only a few resources. But we also need a lot of help. And by the way, we think that democracy in Austria can be interesting for all people. And so a German or a Belgian can also sign the petition, not just us Austrians.
CV: Then I hope that many people who read this will do the same. I wish you all the best and a lot of activity until the election.
GS: Thank you very much. It was a great conversation!