The People May Petition, But Will Lawmakers Listen?

Popular petitions (Volksbegehren) enable the electorate to initiate the law-making procedure.

News | Vera Mair | December 2011 / January 2012

Popular petitions (Volksbegehren) enable the electorate to initiate the law-making procedure. Yet the outcome of petitions is not binding for legislators, in contrast to plebiscites (Volksabstimmung), where the electorate decides whether a proposed law is passed.

"Only in very few cases have popular petitions in Austria actually yielded concrete results," conceded Eva Glawischnig, head of the Green Party at a press conference in November. The best example is the 1982 petition against the construction of the "Austria Center Vienna-" conference hall. While 1.4 million people signed, making it the most successful of all 35 petitions to date, their will was ignored and the government-funded centre opened in 1987.

Any organisation or citizen can initiate a petition. The only preconditions: The petition must be concerned with a matter regulated under federal law, and initiators must collect 8,032 signatures from supporters, a number based on the latest census. After acceptance by the Ministry of  the Interior, the electorate can vote for the petition at municipal offices during a set period. If the required 100,000 votes are collected, the petition is passed on to parliament where a committee holds preliminary consultations on the subject and may call in experts. The results are then presented to the Nationalrat, the legislative assembly, which has to debate the petition. However, members are not bound by the results of the petition in their decision whether to take any legislative action.

Previous petitions have shown that popular movements can indeed bring about decisive reforms. Initiated by private media organisations, Austria’s first petition in 1964 resulted in the 1967 broadcast law which ensured the media’s independence from politics and founded the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, ORF. Similarly, the 1997 petition against genetic engineering was supported by more than 1.2 million Austrians and resulted in strict regulation of the use of genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture.

The Education Initiative’s impact is yet to be determined, but Glawischnig considers the petition a "huge chance for the parliament," allowing politicians to "prove that they are serious about countering political apathy and the inability to initiate reforms."

See also: School Reform: Austria Petitions for Change, Signing On for Austria, Popular Petitions in Austria

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