Austrians and their young democratic state experienced a true roller-coaster-ride recently. They failed to reform their outdated government system, held crazy presidential elections and signed an agenda initiative against the controversial CETA and TTIP free trade agreements in record high numbers.
It is not that the people in this central European alpine republic do not care: To the contrary! By the end of January more than half a million peopleexternal link had signed a citizens' initiativeexternal link to ban any Austrian participation in free trade agreements between Austria and Canada (CETA) and the United States (TTIP).
Out of 40 nationwide citizens initiatives since 1964, the 562,552 signatures gathered within just one week make the proposal the 11th most popular.
Under Austrian law, such an initiativeexternal link must be considered by the national parliament, if at least 100,000 citizens have supported it. However, there is no obligation for parliament to implement the proposal or to trigger a national popular vote on it.
This text is part of #DearDemocracyexternal link, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch.
Last year Austrians voted in a series of presidential electionsexternal link despite surprising weaknesses in the electoral process. After a first round with six candidates, the frontrunners of the main parties – the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Austrian Popular Party (ÖVP) were eliminated.
In a first run-off, former Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen narrowly beat far-right candidate Norbert Hofer with 50.35% against 49.65% of the vote. In this second decisive round, turnout increased from 68% to 72%.
However, the defeated far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) successfully challenged this victory in the constitutional court, which found several flaws in the electoral process. That led to a call for another election, and broad pessimism around the country.
Also contributing to the malaise: the failure of attempts by the main parties in parliament to democratise the party system, replacing old-style patriarchs with a democracy package that was supposed to empower citizens.
The near-Trump experience
The political crisis deepened with the failure of a third attempt to elect a president because of technical reasons — the envelopes of the postal ballots would not close properly.
The situation raised memories of earlier times in Austria, when, before the Second World War, the country struggled to establish a parliamentary system and instead welcomed the German Nazis, who annexed the country in 1938.
After the third election, many people started to fear a return to autocratic times under a President Hofer, who – much like Donald Trump in the US – promised to muck out what he called a corrupt elite in parliament and government.
But Austria bypassed this nightmare with a black eye, as even more citizens turned out in a last and final electoral attempt on December 4.
Three out of four eligible Austrians participated in this historic vote and gave Van der Bellenexternal link a surprisingly clear victory of 54.46%.
The 73-year-old former Green Party leader took office on January 26, offering in his inauguration speech a healthy contrast to the "America First" – demagogy of the 45th US president.
Van der Bellen called instead for a tolerant and diverse nation, free of ideological and racial hatred, furthermore embracing the idea of a transnational democratic Europe.
As his remarks came just before international Holocaust Day, the new Austrian president also reminded its people never to forget the “darkest side of Austria”, when the country was deeply involved in racial cleansing and support of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies.
At the same time as the Anti-TTIP/CETA-citizens’ initiative delivered its impressive results on January 30, the governing SPÖ/ÖVP-coalition launched its new working programme until the next election in autumn 2018.
Not a single sentence is dedicated to the critical situation of democracy in the country.
Instead, a group of political scientists and active citizens has launched work on a comprehensive reform programme for people power in Austria, starting by rebuilding parliamentexternal link.
It focuses on both the division of powers and the power of public dialogue.
And there are more promising news: today’s Austrian republic has a healthy local and regional level of democracy. In city-states like Vienna (with more than two million citizens) or the state of Vorarlberg, tools of participatory and direct democracy are increasingly well-developed and diligently used.
Of course, there also other states like Carinthia and Burgenland with a persistent political culture of nostalgic authoritarianism similar to Victor Orban’s Hungary, which lies just across the border.
It will take a major effort by the new head of state (and its citizens!) to open Austria for a new kind of modern democracy, where both the parliament and the initiative and referendum system are reformed, and strengthened.