How Are Parliaments Formed?
Parliament is formed afresh after each National Council election. These are held every five years at the latest. Sometimes elections take place sooner than that, for instance when government parties terminate their cooperation because of insurmountable differences of opinion. It is a principle of democracy that Parliament should represent the interests of the largest possible number of citizens. This is why elections have to take place under very stringent and detailed rules.
How the National Council Is Formed
The 183 Members of the National Council are elected by all citizens entitled to vote, every five years or sometimes sooner. Voters have to decide in favour of one single party. The National Council is then formed on the basis of what is called the party-list system of proportional representation. The seats – often referred to as “mandates” – are assigned to the political parties under very strict rules; the key is the percentage share of total votes they have obtained. This does not mean, however, that all parties obtain seats in the National Council. They are entitled to seats only if they have received
- at least four percent of the votes in all of Austria or
- one direct or basic mandate in one of the constituencies.
This is to guarantee that only parties of some (nation-wide) importance have seats in the National Council. The advantage is that majorities are more easily formed if there are not too many small parties in Parliament. The disadvantage of this “four-percent hurdle“ is that some political interests are not represented in the National Council.
How the Federal Council Is Formed
The second chamber of Parliament, the Federal Council, is not directly elected by popular vote. Its composition depends on the relative strength of the parties in the Diets of the Federal Provinces, whose interests it represents at the legislative level. The Members of the Federal Council therefore remain in office throughout the legislative period of the Diet by which they have been delegated. This means that the composition of the Federal Council changes after each Provincial Diet election, and the Federal Council has no definitive legislative period in its own right. How many Members of the Federal Council a Federal Province can delegate to it depends on its population. The most populous Province is entitled to a maximum of twelve, the smallest to a minimum of three Members. The reassessment of the number of Members depends of the population register (formerly the census), so that the total number of Members of the Federal Council can change time and again. Currently (as of August 2013) it is 61.
Parliament – a Mirror of Society?
The system of proportional representation is based on the idea that all significant political groups of a country - and thus their different views, interests and convictions - should be represented in its parliament. Every citizen should be able to engage actively in political life. This is why there are no legal requirements as to the educational background of Members of Parliament. The various interests should be represented in proportion to the number of votes cast for them. Yet, Parliament is not a mirror of society: some groups – like women –are still underrepresented in terms of their share in the total population.