Competition of Arguments: Parliament and the Parties
The Constitution describes the task of the parties as “participation in the political decision-making process“. In actual fact, however, their role covers a much wider field. They are the institution in which political power resides.
Competition of Arguments
To work properly, the system of representative democracy needs parties. They bundle the vast number of different interests that prevail in society and make them more manageable. As a rule, the parties formulate their demands, objectives and values in a party programme. It is up to the party representatives and officials to communicate the position of their party to the general public.
Voters assess the different parties on the basis of their programmes, their representatives and the actual political work they have done in the course of the previous legislatives period.
Parties Need Power to Pursue their Objectives
The Constitution regards the multiplicity of political parties as an essential element of the democratic order and therefore envisions a multi-party system. It therefore describes the task of the parties as “participation in the political decision-making process“. In actual fact, however, their role covers a much wider field. They are the institution in which political power resides.
Governing Needs Majorities
In order to realise its objectives, the Government needs majorities in the National Council. Thus the parliamentary majority and the Federal Government are, politically speaking, one. Without the consent of the National Council the Government cannot govern.
The Parties Take Personnel Decisions
The parties also decide who is to be given what powers. Their slates (lists of candidates) determine, for instance, who is to be given a seat in the National Council.
In this way, the parties also decide whether a Member of Parliament can stand for re-election. This may sometimes play a certain role in making them toe the party line, i.e. to vote in line with the prevailing views of their parliamentary group. In this respect, the realities of the Party State are somewhat in conflict with the “free mandate“ guaranteed by the Constitution.
Since the Federal President appoints the individual Members of the Government on the basis of a proposal submitted by the Federal Chancellor and usually asks the chairperson of the party that has achieved most of the votes to form a government, the parties also determine the composition of the Government.
The Influence of Parties beyond Politics
In the first decades of the Second Republic, party politics played an important role in many areas of business and society. The practice of filling posts in public or near-public institutions and giving preference to party members or sympathisers in other fields came severely under fire as “favouritism“.
In the last few decades this problem has become less acute as the “degree of organisation“ of the parties (i.e. the ratio of party members and the number of votes cast for a party) has gone down. More parties, more floating voters, and also the withdrawal of the state from many parts of the economy have weakened party loyalty.
Members Need Parliamentary Groups
In the National Council the members of the same party form what is called a parliamentary group. This is a prerequisite for being able to fully participate in parliamentary work. The parliamentary groups usually adopt one and only one position on a matter under discussion (“party discipline”).
Since the viability of the Government and its successful work depend on the support of the majority groups, stability of these groups is indispensable to a stable Government.
Since the entry into force of the Party Act of 1975 more than 880 party statutes have been filed with the Federal Ministry of the Interior. Still, only seven parties have succeeded in gaining seats in the National Council since 1945. To do so, a party has to obtain four percent of the valid votes cast nation-wide or what is called one basic mandate (i.e. a mandate in a regional constituency).
In the Second Republic the National Council has consisted of either three, four or five parties, much in the same way as during the First Republic.
At the time of the Monarchy the parliamentary groups were only loose alliances of members holding similar political views. Today, the parliamentary groups have a decisive influence on parliamentary work and prepare parliamentary decisions. Within the groups specific members are appointed to take care of specific topics (e.g. business, health). The views of these spokespersons are essential for the position adopted by the group as a whole.
These positions are, as a rule, espoused by the group as a whole. The party discipline that Austrian Members follow is high by international standards. This can be explained by the favourable experience made with what is known as “social partnership“: If substantive differences are already done away with at the level of the major interest groups, one needs reliable partners in Parliament who legislate accordingly.
Party discipline is often seen by the public as something imposed on the members by their parliamentary groups and thus in conflict with the principle of the “free mandate”. The latter means that Members of Parliament are not bound in any way in the exercise of their duties – not even by their voters or parties.
In actual fact, Members of Parliament cannot be forced to cast their vote in a specific way. Still, they are at least politically responsible: their voters vote for a party which bases its campaign on a specific party programme. Since Members are voted into office as candidates of this particular party, they can be expected to take a share in implementing that programme.
The principle of the free mandate also gives Members the guarantee that they can keep their seats in Parliament even if they leave their party or parliamentary group or are expelled from it. Accordingly, Members of the National Council may also leave their parliamentary group and join another one.
Members who leave their party (and possibly join another party) need not necessarily also leave their parliamentary group – unless they are expelled from it. Thus, when the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) split from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 2005, the “defectors“ remained members of their original parliamentary group.
Can Non-Affiliated Members Form a New Parliamentary Group?
Members who leave their group or are expelled from it may remain in Parliament as independent members (often referred to as “non-affiliated members“ by the media). Up to 2013 they were also able to form a new group on condition that they met all other requirements (a minimum of five Members belonging to one and the same contending party). Such was the case when the Liberal Forum was founded in 1993, and again in 2012, when the Team Stronach entered the political stage. Since the beginning of the 25th legislative period – 29 October 2013 – this has been precluded. (also see the chapter "Parliamentary Groups")
The Government is politically responsible to the National Council and thus depends on the confidence of the majority of Members. For this reason leading officials of the majority parties are mostly chosen as Members of the Government. The parliamentary majority is therefore closely interconnected with the Government. Its counterpart is the parliamentary minority, the Opposition, whose central task consists in exercising control over the Government.
This has given rise to a new form of Separation of Powers. In the days of the Monarchy Parliament confronted the Government, passed laws to limit it and supervised their implementation. Today the dividing line runs between the Government and the parliamentary majority on the one hand and the Opposition on the other.
The Federal Council (the Chamber of the Provinces) is to represent the interests of the Provinces in legislation. In practice, however, the party lines play a predominant role in the Federal Council as they do in the National Council.
This is also seen in the fact that seating arrangements in the Federal Council reflect party affiliation rather than the Federal Provinces represented. Objections on the part of the Federal Council are mostly raised when the makeup of majorities differs from that of the National Council.