Winner Takes All?

The Current Austrian Political Crisis Can be Solved by Changing the Electoral System, Conservatives Argue

News | Matthias Wurz | July / August 2008

Throughout April and May 2008, some of the predominantly Conservative Austrian political elite, led by Heinrich Neisser’s Initiative Mehrheitswahlrecht (Initiative for a Majority Voting System) and supported by the Conservative daily Die Presse, reopened a public debate about a switch to a majority voting system for general elections.

Ever since the country has a new Grand Coalition between the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Conservative ÖVP since January 2007, critical voices in both parties have voiced doubts about the effectiveness of the current government, which seems regularly on 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 Director General Gerd Bacher, historian Norbert Leser and Profil-Columnist Peter Michael Lingens, believe that a clear single-party majority in parliament is essential for a stable government. Such a structure would be able to tackle the critical problems, like healthcare and pension reforms, or even an overhaul of the Austrian Constitution.

The current grand coalition government, led by Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (SPÖ) and Vice Chancellor Wilhem Molterer (ÖVP) is supported by a large joint parliamentary majority of almost 70% (SPÖ with 35.3 % and the ÖVP with 34.3 %) that could theoretically push though constitutional changes for which a 2/3 majority is needed. However since taking power in January 2007, the coalition has not in the eyes of the Initiative, touched on any of the pressing issues needing action.

At a press conference at the Presseclub Concordia on April 24, Gerd Bacher was dismissive:  "Within the history of quadriplegic grand coalitions, the current one is the worst of its kind," he said. It is the electoral system, Initiative proponents say, that has brought no clear result; it has instead limited coalition options, forcing opposing parties from the contrary political spectrum into one government.

Therefore, the Initiative proposes that the proportional electoral system be abolished and a voting system based on personal representation, as in the United States or Great Britain, be introduced instead.

The Initiative’s manifesto, available on the Internet at, calls for the realization of an "individual 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 effective or not – and in my understanding most are ineffective – remain (in Parliament)," he added.

The press conference was only one of the events surrounding the debate. Earlier that month, another debate was held at the Haus der Industrie at Schwarzenbergplatz, called Departure. Discussions on the future of Austria (Aufbrüche. Diskussionen zur Zukunft Österreichs) – the first in a series considering whether a majority voting system for Austria might be a way out of the current political crisis.

What political crisis? I kept asking myself as I entered the building and made my way up the red-carpeted marble staircase. It was hard to feel any sense of social unrest in this building, an the early 20th century confection in the style of the 17th, that would lend a sense of stability and distance to any debate.

I made my way up to the Grosser Festsaal, past the buffet in the foyer still covered for the cocktail reception that would follow, and entered the Festsaal just after 6.00 pm. The hall felt 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 on time and the audience ready by 18.30 pm, we were kept in suspense for "the academic quarter," when finally the proponents of the debate, Josef Cap, Parliamentary Leader of the Social Democrats, Günther 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 law professor Gerhard Strejcek. The debate was skillfully moderated by Michael Fleischhacker, Editor-in-Chief of Die Presse, who considers the current coalition "a balance of terror."

This was to be an experiment, of after the usual introductions and thanks to organizers, there was no reminder to switch off mobile phones,

"Tonight," Fleischhacker said, "we ask you to keep them switched on, so that you can cast your vote." We had two chances, one at the beginning of the debate, and the second one at the end to see whether the arguments had any effect. It was €0.30 per SMS to cast our vote.

It was curious that neither of the two MPs, representing Austria’s largest political parties, were in favor of one man, one vote, a la Great Britain. Stummvoll even admitted having gone through a "catharsis" on the issue, having strongly supported a change in the 1980s and 1990s. But elections like the General Elections in the UK in 2005, where the only 35.3% of the vote gave Labour a comfortable governing majority to the Tory loss with 32.2%, 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 that of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky from 1970 to 1983, the attraction of a multi-party situation is that it "allows for disputes." But not 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 to not having cast a vote – at least not then.

Sonja Punscher Riekmann, former Green Party MP and now Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Salzburg, warns against expecting too much.

"It will become difficult to present new political ideas," she said, "One aims to change a crisis situation by changing the rule of the game." She also rejected Fleischhacker’s argument of that reducing the influence of political parties will increase democracy.

"Democracy needs organization," she said, referring to the primary season in the United States as a determining a presidential candidate. But "a majority based electoral system would do little to democratize the parties," she said.

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

Others were less convinced. Gerhard Strejcek warned that the Austrian democracy, "although it works well, 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."

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    the vienna review July / August 2008