Signing On for Austria

The MeinOe initiative gives Austrian voters a louder voice

News | Matthias Wurz | June 2012

"When the new French President François Hollande took office, he ordered government salaries to be cut by 30%." Johannes Voggenhuber, former Green Party MEP, needed no script that day. As the flood of words came easily, one sensed a passion for the issue, though his voice retained a sharp edge.

He glanced at the handful of journalists that had turned up to his press conference on 18 May at the intimate Löwel Zimmer of Café Landtmann – a traditional, yet extremely popular venue for events like today’s with truly imperial flair right next to the Burgtheater. Just like an actor on stage, the 62-year-old veteran of Austria’s ecology movement quickly captured his audience’s attention with a barrage of facts.

"At a time when everyone is forced to tighten their belts – significant state investments and social benefits are being severely cut – this political signal [of the new French government] sends an unmistakably clear signal to the people." A short yet dramatic pause hung in the air, and then he made the tie in to the current situation in Austria: This signal is "Not [achieved] by doubling party funding!"

Transparency package 

Just a few days earlier, the Austrian government presented its amendment to the Parteiengesetz – the law regulating the organisation of political parties. It also defines the framework of financial support that political parties can claim from the state, once represented in the Austrian Parliament. And it’s that particular aspect of the law in desperate need of revision, so as to meet European transparency standards defined by the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) of the European Council.

High expectations, therefore, were raised in advance of the unveiling of the government proposal – or "transparency package" – responding to sharp criticism by GRECO in December 2011. Its findings, based on the third evaluation of 2011, emphasised Austria’s need to revise party-funding laws, as well as tightening anti-corruption legislation as to prevent scandals such as those currently being investigated.

However, when Chancellor Werner Faymann (SPÖ) and Vice-Chancellor Michael Spindelegger (ÖVP) let the cat out of the bag on 15 May, political commentators were highly critical of the proposed changes, concluding those were hardly an improvement to the status quo. Among others, Alexandra Föderl-Schmid’s editorial in Der Standard on 19 May titled "Freche Selbstbedienung" ("Brazen Self-Service"); a view, evidently shared by Johannes Voggenhuber.

"The proposed changes make party-funding as transparent as the fog over the Thames in mid-November," Voggenhuber concluded with sarcasm, putting words into figures: Under the current legal provisions, each political party represented in the Austrian Parliament receives an estimated €2.41 per vote annually, one of the top rates internationally. The sum is based on their share of votes as well as the total number of Austrian voters at last general election (6.33 million citizens in 2008). The total amount spent on party funding for 2012, therefore, is €15.3 million, according to the figures published by the Bundeskanzleramt. Not included are party-affiliated think tanks, like the Renner Institut of the SPÖ, which in total receive yet another €10.45 million.

Under the proposed government amendment, the amount for party funding (excluding party-affiliated think tanks) would more than double to a total of €32 million, setting the minimum of party funding per electorate at €5. Evidently, Voggenhuber’s sarcasm hit the nail on the head, when he branded Austria’s political parties "the fattest and richest in the world, and still won’t tighten their belts." Additionally, very little is being done towards transparency of the money-flow to political parties, Voggenhuber added to his list of complaints, summarising his findings pointedly: "The cart is slowly moving, but it is still caught in the mud."

Popular Initiative: Signing on

Recent corruption scandals and the debate of political funding in Austria have stirred Voggenhuber back into political action, joining forces with former Social-Democratic Deputy-Governor of Salzburg, Wolfgang Radlegger and his platform MeinOe: Direkte Demokratie jetzt! (see also "Outrage and Action: The Elders", TVR Nov. 2011).

What started in summer 2011 as a loose forum of former Salzburg-based politicians has since become a non-profit-organisation rallying support for political change. Nine key points eventually emerged, to be put before the Austrian electorate in a popular petition – currently the only direct democratic instrument citizens can initiate themselves (see Background: Popular Petitions in Austria).

The key demands clearly reflect current political events: Changes to the voting system as to allow some of the parliamentary seats to be elected by majority rule, as well as full accountability for party funds, including the declaration of corporate or private donations for €100 and above. From 30 March until 5 June, anyone entitled to vote could support MeinOe’s political cause by signing at the local Magistrat, which should lead to a popular petition in October 2012, if it gets 8,032 signatures.

Voggenhuber also raised more basic questions of democracy. "I believe, the cause of all evil today is the lack of democracy in Austria", speaking at the first press conference of MeinOe on 26 September 2011. His analysis was met with agreeable nods from his colleagues. "It is of great importance, therefore, that our generation stands up for democracy," he insisted, otherwise there is a real danger "that younger generations experience the current lack of democratic tradition as a fault of democracy."

Initial reports on collecting signatures indicate that it is slow going, Voggenhuber admitted. Nevertheless, he was confident that enough support can be won to initiate changes in a few months: "This is a grassroots movement, telling political parties: ‘We are the people’." After all, the issues raised by MeinOe concerns Austria’s democratic future.

See also: School Reform: Austria Petitions for Change, The People May Petition

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