Austria

   

Executive Accountability

#9
Key Findings
With growing legislative oversight powers and a well-integrated civil society, Austria scores well overall (rank 9) in terms of executive accountability. Its overall score on this measure is unchanged relative to 2014.

Opposition parties have strategically exercised their relatively new investigative powers, thus expanding parliamentary oversight powers. However, party discipline and government-party majorities more generally limit executive monitoring in practice. The Court of Audit is becoming more outspoken on issues of political oversight, but is underfunded.

While only a minority of citizens are well informed on policy issues, referendum-based decision-making is becoming increasingly popular. The media market is highly concentrated. High-quality media face financial difficulties, while free newspapers with non-transparent commercial or political ties are becoming more common, and often-biased social media are growing in significance.

The party landscape is shifting, but most parties have focused on electoral appeals rather than inter-party democracy. Traditional economic and religious interest groups are usually consulted on important measures, with some notable recent exceptions.

Citizens’ Participatory Competence

#8

To what extent are citizens informed of government policymaking?

10
 9

Most citizens are well-informed of a broad range of government policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many citizens are well-informed of individual government policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few citizens are well-informed of government policies; most citizens have only a rudimental knowledge of policies.
 2
 1

Most citizens are not aware of government policies.
Policy Knowledge
6
A minority of Austrian citizens are well informed, but the majority is informed only within rather narrow limits. In large part, this is because political parties (and the government) do not provide full information on decision-makers’ debates and strategic thinking. However, a majority of Austrians show limited interest in politics, a characteristic perhaps reinforced by the comparatively minimal opportunity for direct participation within the political system.

One thread of political discourse in Austria has focused on increasing citizens’ direct role within decision-making processes, a discussion that helped lead to the popular referendum in 2013 over the future of the military draft. In this, a majority opted for keeping the draft system rather than creating a professional army. In spite of the non-binding character of this consultation, all political parties agreed that the result should be respected. The public discourse generally favors more direct democratic participation. And some particularly sensitive topics, such as the possibility of Turkey’s EU membership, lead to promises by most or all political parties to have binding popular consultations before government and parliament determine Austria’s final position.

Legislative Actors’ Resources

#11

Do members of parliament have adequate personnel and structural resources to monitor government activity effectively?

10
 9

The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring all government activity effectively.
 8
 7
 6


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring a government’s major activities.
 5
 4
 3


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for selectively monitoring some government activities.
 2
 1

The resources provided to the members of parliament are not suited for any effective monitoring of the government.
Parliamentary Resources
7
The two-chambered Austrian parliament, in which the National Council (Nationalrat) or lower house holds more power than the Federal Council (Bundesrat), is divided along two main cleavages. First, the strength of political party groupings within the parliament reflect the results of direct national elections (in the National Council) as well as indirect provincial elections (in the Federal Council). Second, the formation of coalitions creates a government and a parliamentary opposition.

All party groups that have at least five members in the National Council can use infrastructure (office space, personnel) paid by public funds and provided by parliament. All party groups are represented on all committees, in proportion to their strength. In plenary sessions, speaking time is divided by special agreements among the parties, typically according to the strength of the various party groups.

Individual members’ ability to use resources independently of their respective parties has improved in recent years. Members of parliament can now hire a small number of persons for a personal staff that is funded by parliament and not by the party. This improves members’ independence. However, this independence is still limited by the strong culture of party discipline, which is not defined by explicit rules but rather by the party leadership’s power to nominate committee members and electoral candidates.

A significant step was taken in 2014 to improve the National Council’s capacity. The right to install an investigating committee, which has been the prerogative of the ruling majority, has now become a minority right. Considering the rather strict party discipline in Austria’s parliament, this must be considered a significant improvement of parliamentary democracy. Also, recently a new subgroup in the parliament was founded which is checking laws for economic costs and benefits.

Are parliamentary committees able to ask for government documents?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may ask for most or all government documents; they are normally delivered in full and within an appropriate time frame.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are slightly limited; some important documents are not delivered or are delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are considerably limited; most important documents are not delivered or delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not ask for government documents.
Obtaining Documents
9
Currently, all parliamentary committees have the power to ask for any kind of document. However, documents deemed “secret” can only be viewed in a special parliamentary room and cannot be copied.

Significant portions in government documents obtained by newly-formed investigative committees were redacted, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting privacy. This demonstrated that committees are entitled to obtain documents, yet the government can create significant limitations in accessing parts of these documents.

Are parliamentary committees able to summon ministers for hearings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon ministers. Ministers regularly follow invitations and are obliged to answer questions.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are slightly limited; ministers occasionally refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are considerably limited; ministers frequently refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon ministers.
Summoning Ministers
8
The legal ability to summon ministers is in practice limited by the majority that the government parties have in all committees. As the majority party groups tend to follow the policy defined by the cabinet, there typically is little interest in summoning cabinet members, at least against the minister’s will.

While this de facto limitation can be seen as part of the logic of a parliamentary system in which the government and the parliamentary majority are essentially a single political entity, it is given additional influence by Austria’s high level of party discipline.

However, in February 2015, for the first time in Austria’s parliamentary history, opposition parties made use of the 2014 National Council reform and established a committee to investigate the Hypo-Alpe-Adria bank affair – against the will of the governing majority.

Are parliamentary committees able to summon experts for committee meetings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon experts.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are considerably limited.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon experts.
Summoning Experts
10
Parliamentary committees have no formal limits in terms of summoning experts. Every party, including the opposition (i.e., the committee’s minority parties), can nominate or invite experts it deems qualified. Expert hearings are held quite regularly.

However, this opportunity is not used in the best possible way. The twin factors of party discipline and cabinet dominance over the parliament’s majority mean that independent expert voices do not ultimately have great influence.

Are the task areas and structures of parliamentary committees suited to monitor ministries effectively?

10
 9

The match between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are well-suited to the effective monitoring of ministries.
 8
 7
 6


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are largely suited to the monitoring ministries.
 5
 4
 3


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are partially suited to the monitoring of ministries.
 2
 1

The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are not at all suited to the monitoring of ministries.
Task Area Congruence
8
Though parliamentary committees outnumber ministries, the task areas of parliamentary committees are more or less identical to the tasks of the ministries with only minor exceptions. The National Council’s General Committee enjoys a kind of overall competence, including deciding the government’s position within the EU Council.

To what extent is the audit office accountable to the parliament?

10
 9

The audit office is accountable to the parliament exclusively.
 8
 7
 6


The audit office is accountable primarily to the parliament.
 5
 4
 3


The audit office is not accountable to the parliament, but has to report regularly to the parliament.
 2
 1

The audit office is governed by the executive.
Audit Office
10
The Austrian Court of Audit (Rechnungshof) is an instrument of parliament. The office reports regularly to parliament, and parliament can order it to perform specific tasks. As a consequence, the parliamentary majority determines how to handle audit reports, and in cases of doubt, the majority inevitably backs the cabinet. Thus, the main vehicle by which to force the government to react in a positive way to audit reports is public opinion. If a specific audit report formulates a specific criticism, the government’s primary incentive to respond is its interest in preserving its public reputation.

The president of the Court of Audit is elected by parliament for the period of twelve years. This gives the president a certain degree of independence. At the moment of election by the National Council, he or she is the product of the majority. But as this figure cannot be reelected, and as parliamentary majorities often change in the course of 10 years, the president and his or her office in fact enjoy a significant degree of independence.

The elections of a new president for the Court in 1992, 2004 and again in 2016 have underlined the possibility for opposition parties to impact these decisions due to the inability of coalition partners to unite behind a common candidate for the presidency.

The Court of Audit has become outspoken in the debates concerning political oversight. For example, when in 2014 it became known that a number of parties had violated legal financial limits during the 2013 electoral campaign, the Court publicly pointed to its limits in looking into such matters and called for this to be improved.

One problem is the insufficient funding of the Austrian Court of Audit, while, at the same time, an increasing number of tasks are delegated to the court by the governing majority.

Does the parliament have an ombuds office?

10
 9

The parliament has an effective ombuds office.
 8
 7
 6


The parliament has an ombuds office, but its advocacy role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


The parliament has an ombuds office, but its advocacy role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

The parliament does not have an ombuds office.
Ombuds Office
10
The Austrian Ombudsman Board (Volksanwaltschaft) has three chairpersons, with one nominated by each of the three largest party groups in parliament. Parliament is required by law to select these nominees. This prevents the ombuds office from being run solely by persons handpicked by the ruling majority. The Ombudsman Board is a parliamentary instrument and reports regularly to the legislature. The chairpersons are elected for a period of six years.

Media

#11

To what extent do media provide substantive in-depth information on decision-making by the government?

10
 9

A clear majority of mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing government decisions.
 8
 7
 6


About one-half of the mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing government decisions. The rest produces a mix of infotainment and quality information content.
 5
 4
 3


A clear minority of mass media brands focuses on high-quality information content analyzing government decisions. Several mass media brands produce superficial infotainment content only.
 2
 1

All mass media brands are dominated by superficial infotainment content.
Media Reporting
7
The freedom of the press in Austria is guaranteed by European and national law. Nevertheless, two problems are relevant:

• The Austrian media lack pluralism. The publicly owned Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) dominates the radio and television broadcast markets, although competition by foreign and privately owned media is growing. In response to criticism of this dominance, the ORF offers guarantees of internal independence and internal political pluralism. The ORF is impartial by law and fulfills its mandate reasonably well, making up for deficits existing elsewhere in the media environment. The increasing significance of social media is a deepening challenge because it is not bound by the rules of impartiality as the ORF is.

• The country’s print-media market is highly concentrated. One daily paper, Die Kronen Zeitung, serves more than a third of the country’s readership, and uses this dominant position to issue biased political information, often in a simplified manner. Moreover, the expanding role of freely distributed print media, more or less dependent on funds for commercial or political promotion is problematic insofar as it makes it more difficult for readers to distinguish propaganda from information. High-quality political information is available from daily and weekly papers with more limited circulation, but high-quality media face considerable financial difficulties. In 2016, the number of daily newspapers was reduced again when the “Wirtschaftsblatt” stopped its circulation.

Parties and Interest Associations

#16

How inclusive and open are the major parties in their internal decision-making processes?

10
 9

The party allows all party members and supporters to participate in its decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are open.
 8
 7
 6


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, all party members have the opportunity to participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are rather open.
 5
 4
 3


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, a number of elected delegates participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are largely controlled by the party leadership.
 2
 1

A number of party leaders participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are fully controlled and drafted by the party leadership.
Intra-party Democracy
5
The Austrian party system is in an ongoing process of deconcentration. The traditionally dominant parties – the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and the conservative, Christian-democratic Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) have experienced an almost uninterrupted decline since 1980. In 1979, the two parties were able to win a combined total of more than 90% of votes; in 2013, they were down to a combined total of about 50%. The other half of voters either preferred another party or failed to turn out.

As voters have looked elsewhere, the right-wing (“populist”) Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), the center-left Greens, and the liberal New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) as well as a variety of newer parties, sometimes with very short political life expectancies, have been the beneficiaries. The Austrian parties are usually linked to European party families and to party groups in the European Parliament.

In general, all parties have spent little time developing intra-party democracy, and have focused instead on appealing to specific groups considered necessary to win elections. The younger generations have proved critical in this regard, as they are significantly less predictable in their political behavior. However, the younger generations are also much less inclined to go to the polls at all. Electoral turnout is in decline, but is still quite high compared with other European democracies.

Age, education and to a lesser extent gender are critical in explaining electoral behavior in Austria. The SPÖ and ÖVP are the parties still preferred by older voters. The FPÖ is disproportionately supported by younger (especially male) voters without higher education, while the Greens are supported by younger voters with higher education. The success of a new party, the NEOS, in the 2013 general election and in the 2014 European elections have underlined the generation gap: The NEOS, which have a center-right pro-European agenda, are popular in particular among the younger electorate.

To what extent are economic interest associations capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Business)
8
The role of economic interest groups is still very strong in Austria: Significant associations include the Austrian Economic Chambers (Wirtschaftskammern) and the Federation of Austrian Industry (Die Industriellenvereinigung) for business and employers; the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund) and the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labor (Arbeiterkammern) for employees; and the Chamber of Agriculture (Landwirtschaftskammern) for farmers. These groups’ ability to shape politics may have been reduced as a result of Austria’s integration into the European Union, but within domestic politics, their influence remains very strong. Though formally independent of political parties, the groups have various individual links to the parties, especially to the Social Democratic Party and the Austrian People’s Party. Moreover, their influence is enhanced by their practice of acting in a coordinated, neocorporatist way through the social-partnership network.

Some observers underline the ambivalence of associations’ strong role: On the one hand, they help stabilize the democratic system as such; on the other, they can be seen as limiting the authority of parliament and government.

To what extent are non-economic interest associations capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Others)
6
Along with economic interest groups, organized religious communities, particularly the officially recognized denominations, have a formalized role within the decision-making process. Like the economic interest groups, they are consulted before the cabinet approves the draft of a law. This is a critical stage of the process, as most cabinet-approved drafts are also approved by parliament.

It must be emphasized, however, that not all draft proposals are subject to consultation procedures. Recently, important bills (e.g., those regarding asylum regulations) have been passed without any formal consultation.

A number of other groups occasionally exert notable influence, including the physicians’ chamber, various environmental groups (such as Greenpeace) and some human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International).

The recent proliferation of various special interest groups involves a certain polarization of interests as traditional interest groups with a broader reach are weakened.
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